Ernest Withers, Memphis, Alex Alex Alex Thinking Wilson L. Alex Wilson discussed on In Black America
Two has an older now but he was very aware of it he was roughed up a couple of times once at the end of Medgar. Evers Funeral The police just you know got cameras through them in almost like a cage him and a lot of other people. He was spit at a lot. He said and you know he was He wasn't a large man but he he. He played football in high school. He was a quarterback. So you know like well quarterbacks he kind of knew where to move and he knew how to protect himself and You know he He wasn't too worried he but it took an awful lot of courage You know he really developed moves. Oftentimes a white writer journalist would come down to the south and Ernest withers would be not only his chauffeur but really his eyes and ears to get him through the South and and the same hell through with black for a black journalist who came down from jet or Ebony and you didn't know the ways of the South this is where he grew up and he really understood a lot of the kind of the mores of how to conduct yourself. I'm glad you mentioned that cause I kind of skipped over but you brought this full circle back to me when he first started taking photographs for the black press. I'm trying to remember the newspaper. He went to work for and he was under. That attitude of publishes Tula Rich for a while right right well it was. You're thinking of Alex Alex Alex Thinking Wilson L. Alex Wilson. Right was people will know Alex Wilson because he was the very tall journalist who was punched and kicked around right at the Little Rock and that was it was the night of that that was on. Tv that Eisenhower said he was going to send paratroopers out there and Wilson was a big man in a really smart man. And you could tell how you know. He was just ganged up on the. They kicked us. You know they. They kicked him. They pushed his head off into the street. And and Wilson who was a former marine refused exactly and And and and withers was supposed to be there that day and he just by assignment he was in He was a Memphis and not in little rock and he did a lot of photography of the of the Little Rock. Nine and Wilson was really the man he was with them when King and Abernathy got on the bus in nineteen fifty. Six and We're there's really respected him. There's a lot about journalism. Exactly THEIR OTHER PICTORIAL BOOKS OUT. Jet Was make this particular book special. You know I think we use the photographs to set up history I. I'm not a southerner so a lot of this was new to me and and and frankly it was really eye-opening. I in and we we use photographs to tell the story of the integration of say the Memphis Public Library The integration of the Memphis pools Using first graders in nineteen sixty one to integrate memphis public schools. Which was pretty thirteen. First graders were used to to to break the color barrier. You know you talk about the bravery of Jackie Robinson. Well you can imagine the bravery of these first grader. Hand their parents right and and so it's not so much a portfolio I e when you open the book you see about two hundred and fifty photographs and you think it's just going to be one of those big beautiful portfolios but there's every picture let us on an adventure and we really tracked down each picture and set it in context now on the front and back inside. There's a picture of Andrew Young and then the first photograph of the book itself this Andrea Wide Links photographs. Well in withers died in two thousand seven and in two thousand and eleven. It was revealed that was paid. Fbi Informant Okay and In some ways to some people like Dick Gregory it made withers traitor But other people who knew withers and who understood the times It's it's it's much more nuanced you know. He's a it's nineteen fifty nine. He's a photographer in Memphis in the FBI comes to them says insures. How NUMBER ONE? How do you say no to the FBI? Right number two. It wasn't clear yet that time a hoover's hatred of King and the movement was not clear nineteen fifty nine so it wasn't like you were just switching sides and Withers there's wrote in two thousand and one that the FBI had been following him for years didn't say format and he said he really tried to never get himself into you. Know controversial secretive moments and Andrew. Young WHO's a big defender of whether's said basically. We had no secrets to hide. There was nothing to really demolish took photographs and told people where events were. It was okay with him and you also ride dad. Whether said that he made. He made a habit of not being with decisions. Were being smoking about during his time with with the movement exactly he you know withers was a smart guy and he knew what he was doing. Now that doesn't take away. The feelings that other people have had over the years. That withers you know. Betray them because they simply didn't know what his dual role was and I understand that on a personal level. But you know there's there's you know. I don't think his involvement affects these pictures in the least and whether he should have been or shouldn't have been. I don't think we can really judge him because he's not around to really stand up and defend himself and You know it's not as clear as as it might seem at first all right. You also talk about whether he had nine children. H Eight children and one was involved in an accident out in California. And Isaac Hayes did a benefit concert to bring back to Memphis exactly and Isaak's paid for Dorothy to head out to California and bring them back on a on a special point you know you. I think people who in Memphis understand this but obviously outside of Memphis. They have no idea how withers was absolutely beloved beloved by the entertainment community beloved by the Sports Community. And and this is the guy that was if you go onto legacy dot com and your comments after. That's how the book actually starts to me. We'll write about somebody after they die. Oh my gosh. He was just one and he was just always there. He was the guy that was you know photographing in the schools and everyone you know really did love him and care about them so it you know there's no question. It was a shock win. These revelations came out but I think that if he was alive he'd have a good. We would better understand what happened. You know remember withers really also. Didn't say not to photo assignments. He was a photographer. This is what he did in the school. Board wants to picture of the graduation. He says yes you know Jet Magazine wants them to you. Know fly down or not fly down but to drive down the Sumner Mississippi to photograph the Emmett till trial. Nineteen fifty five. He said yes. He ended up paying. I I think he got paid. Something like seventy five dollars for a week of work but he just with somebody that wasn't going to say no because I think he loved it. He absolutely everybody he photographed. He knew he knew there. You're their uncle. Their aunt their family members a really important part of this community in Memphis. You also write about. On the day that his dad died he went to the that day and didn't have doesn't assignment later on that evening. He did he never he never shirked assignment His kids who all love him and know him but they also know that their fathers I I won't say I love but loyalty was work. This is how family survived now. We skipped apart that in the early in his career he gets a little law enforcement right right and it was fired. Yes he was he was wanting to Memphis is first African American Patrol officers and those days. If you were black you could not just a white person. You could not carry a gun and supposedly. He was fired because he was bootlegging liquor. It's it's hard to know D. Says it was a a Jealous Lieutenant? I have no idea but you know he he. I'll say this. I think that was a hustler. Good sense of the word he he was trying to get ahead in life and And that was just. That's that's that's one of the reasons why we have these photographs. The man who created a couple of million photographs because he never said no to an assignment. Also you have pitches of Elvis Presley in that. Yeah Yeah you know. Elvis Presley was certainly an important part of the Memphis music scene and I think Elvis Presley made it pretty clear that he learned a lot of his moves a lot of his music. From the African American the Beale street crowd and he hung around oftentimes. There's a picture of him at the goodwill review which was a radio station W. DA's annual fundraising events in nineteen fifty six. Elvis was a big man in the white and African American community. And there's a picture of him just milling around with some young teenage you know performance and you can see them swooning for him. It's funny Elvis. Used to shop at a place called Landscape in Memphis and the owner of told Ernest that he should only photograph Elvis Presley that that he would become a millionaire today if he had only photographed Elvis Presley and I think he's probably right but Who knew then. And I'm I'm glad that nurse where there's you know photographed other things because we probably have enough pictures of Elvis Presley when you went back to Memphis talk about ernest. What was the reaction? Oh it was great. We had a book launch last month and people were thrilled to finally see these pictures all put together in one place. I mentioned ernest daughter. Roz right she she still runs this museum. And you can see many of these pictures of the museum but for all the people that can't come down to the withers collection museum. They have this chance to see you. Know a whole life devoted to photography and and And it's really and and a lot of these pictures. Roz and many other people have never seen before because we got a chance to go back to the negatives and prints right from the negative so things that that earn himself probably a never seen before because he'd never made principal out of it. You know he was. He was out getting another job when you had an opportunity to to to review some of the photos. Did you have a moment? Oh boy I think I had. I had a lot of them. I thought the picture of that I mentioned of young Martin Luther King in nineteen fifty six with Ralph. Abernathy is really an important photo. There's another great photo of Moses Right Emmett till Great uncle and he's standing up in court and I've read about this before. What a courageous move a black man had never really accused pointed ed white people for a capital crime and he stood up and he points to the two men that were accused of the crime. And withers wasn't supposed to take a picture. But he was in. He was in the front row holding his camera and He took a picture of of Right standing up. Oh my gosh the this moment bravery and I'm so happy it was captured by by somebody. And of course it was Ernest Withers. Kinda like the forest gump. No matter what happened he was always there. And that's that's incredible when looking at some of the photographs. I was with cheekily enamored with the one that had Dr King. Arriving in Memphis. Yeah just before. Well it was. It was the day before the assassination April third nineteen sitting right. Yeah it's It's kind of a simple photo. But you know like everything else when you look back at some photos You you you see filled with pathos and interestingly and this is kind of a secret of the book but that Night Martin. Luther King gave the famous mountaintop speech..