"It is history. It serves as a sounding board, and everybody I talk with has been overwhelmed by it." That's the quotation from Memphis photographer Ernest Withers with which Flyer staff writer Chris Davis began a profile/review in March of last year, on the eve of a national tour of Withers' "Pictures Tell the Story" exhibit.
The exhibit, which was just then getting under way in Norfolk, Virginia, has passed through several American cities since then -- leaving hosts of overwhelmed viewers in its wake, you may be sure -- and has finally arrived home for an extended showing at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
Withers is one of those indigenous artistic greats -- some others, historically, have been Elvis, Carroll Cloar, Burton Callicott, William Eggleston, and, of course, that near neighbor, William Faulkner -- whom the outer world began to celebrate long before we caught on to what we had with us. People everywhere owe their visual sense of what the civil-rights revolution was all about to some poignant or powerful Withers image. He is the photographic chronicler of the movement that transformed America and regenerated the country's most noble dreams. Withers' work is history, all right. It captures the pain and suffering of the time, along with the grandeur.
Many an eminence stands fully revealed in one of Withers' candid snapshots -- Martin Luther King, B.B. King, and the pitching genius Satchel Paige are just a few -- but the most telling photograph the master ever took was probably one of massed picketers all holding signs reading "I Am a Man" during the valiant and troubled sanitation strike which eventually brought Dr. King to Memphis -- and to the last tragic chapter in the Nobel Laureate's destiny.
No more profound statement of the aspirations of Everyman to claim a fair share of life's possibilities has ever been captured. Not in words. Not on canvas. Not on TV or in the movies.
Be sure of one thing. Withers himself, that witness to history, is properly overwhelmed by it, but he has never, not for a second, been overwhelmed by himself. No more modest a man exists than this gallant patriarch who in his own being encompasses so much of Memphis' past and present (among other things, he was -- way back in the 1940s -- the city's first black policeman) and who raised several children to maturity and distinction, all to make a daddy proud.
Two of Ernest Withers' children died unexpectedly within months of each other a few years ago -- his namesake oldest son and his son Teddy, who had been one of the founders 10 years ago of that political milestone, the "People's Convention," which would coalesce a new voting consensus and produce the city's first African-American mayor, Willie Herenton.
Ernest Withers grieved and staggered under the burden of such an unkind double blow, but he never went down. Indeed, he kept on working and has continued to take the photographs that will document some of the pivotal moments of our time.
For now and for some while into the future, we trust, we have one in our midst who truly has the right to say, "I am a man."