Looking Back 

On the passage from the scene of two pivotal Memphians.

Remembering Ernest Withers

One of the great serendipities I've experienced as a journalist was the decision by former Memphis magazine editor Tim Sampson back in 1993, on the 25th anniversary of the death in Memphis of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to use as the centerpiece of an anniversary issue an archival piece of mine, along with pictures by the great photographer Ernest Withers.

Uncannily often, Withers' photographs directly illustrated specific scenes of my narrative, which had been written originally on the day after King's assassination and concerned the events of that traumatic day. It was a little like being partnered with Michelangelo, and I was more than grateful.

The publication of that issue led to an invitation from Beale Street impresario John Elkington for Withers and me to collaborate on a book having to do with the history of Beale Street, and the two of us subsequently spent a good deal of time going through the treasure trove that was Withers' photographic inventory.

For various reasons, most of them having to do with funding, the book as envisioned never came to pass (though years later Elkington published a similar volume), but the experience led to an enduring friendship.

One day, when I was having car trouble, he gave me a ride home from downtown to Parkway Village, the still predominantly white area where I was living at the time, just beginning a demographic changeover. At the time it appeared as though it might become a success of bi-racial living, and we talked at length about that prospect.

That very evening, Ernest was a panelist on the old WKNO show, Informed Sources, and, instead of focusing on the subject at hand, whatever it was, chose to discourse at length on the sociology of Parkway Village. Watching at home, I was delighted — though the host and other panelists, intent on discussing another subject, one of those pro-forma public-affairs things, may not have been.

They should have been. This was the man, remember, who documented the glory and the grief of our city and out land as both passed from one age into another. Ernest saw what was happening in Parkway Village as a possible trope for that, and whatever he had to say about it needed to be listened to.

Sadly, of course, the neighborhood in question was not able to maintain the blissfully integrated status that Ernest Withers, an eternally hopeful one despite his ever-realistic eye, imagined for it.

As various eulogists have noted last week and this, Withers not only chronicled the civil rights era but the local African-American sportscape and the teeming music scene emanating from and influenced by black Memphians.

He was also, as we noted editorially last week, a family man, and it had to be enormously difficult for him that, in the course of a single calendar year while he was in his 70s (he was 85 at the time of his death), he buried three of his own children.

Among my souvenirs is a photograph I arranged to have taken of Ernest Withers with my youngest son Justin and my daughter-in-law Ellen, both residents of Atlanta, on an occasion when they were visiting Memphis a few years back. Happy as they were with the memento, the younger Bakers expressed something of a reservation.

What they'd really wanted, explained Ellen, a museum curator who was even then, in fact, planning for a forthcoming Withers exhibit in Atlanta, was a picture of the two of them taken by the master.

Silly of me not to have realized that. To be in a picture by Ernest Withers was to become part of history — a favor he bestowed on legions of struggling ordinary folk as well on the high and mighty of our time.

click to enlarge Musicians honor Memphis photographer Ernest Withers near his Beale Street studio. - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Musicians honor Memphis photographer Ernest Withers near his Beale Street studio.

Remembering Kenneth Whalum

There was a time, before Mayor Willie Herenton became the acknowledged alternative within the black community to the Ford family's dominance, that councilman Kenneth Whalum was a recognized third force to reckon with.

The Rev. Whalum was both the influential pastor of Olivet Baptist Church in the sprawling mid-city community of Orange Mound and the former personnel director of the U.S. Postal Service, locally. In effect, he had a foot planted firmly in each of the two spheres that make up the Memphis political community.

That fact made him a natural for the City Council during the period of the late '80s and early '90s when the era of white dominance was passing and that of African-American control was dawning.

During the 1991 council election, Whalum, along with Myron Lowery, achieved milestones as important in their way as Herenton's mayoral victory, taking out long-serving at-large white incumbents Oscar Edmunds and Andy Alissandratos, respectively.

Whalum was uniquely able to serve both as a sounding board for black aspirations and a bridge between races and factions on the council. He was a moderate by nature, though sometimes his preacherly passions got the best of him and he sounded otherwise. Something like that happened during a couple of incendiary sermons he preached during the interregnum between the pivotal mayor's race of 1991 and Herenton's taking the oath in January 1992 as Memphis' first elected black mayor.

Word of that got to me, and I was able to acquire a recording of one of the incriminating sermons. I had no choice but to report on it, and — what to say? — it made a bit of a sensation at the time, no doubt limiting Whalum's immediate political horizons somewhat.

It certainly limited the contacts I would have, again in the short term, with a political figure that I had previously had a good confidential relationship with. Whalum's sense of essential fairness eventually prevailed, however, and we ultimately got back on an even keel.

To my mind, in any case, Whalum's outspokenness never obscured his essential even-handedness, and his occasional prickliness was more than offset by his genuine — and sometimes robust — good humor.

There are many ways of judging someone's impact on society, and one might certainly be the prominence of one's offspring. In Whalum's case, they include the highly regarded jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum and the councilman-minister's namesake son Kenneth Whalum Jr., a school board member and an innovative pastor himself — so innovative in his wide-open 21st-century style as to cause a generational schism for Olivet church members. The divide eventually resulted in two distinct churches, one led by the senior Whalum, one by Whalum Jr.

Whalum Sr. had been something of a forgotten man in local politics since leaving the council at the end of 1995 (he would also run losing races for both city and county mayor). But he got his hand back in briefly during last year's 9th District congressional race, making a point of endorsing Democratic nominee Steve Cohen, who ultimately prevailed.

Appropriately, Cohen took the lead, along with Senator Lamar Alexander, on behalf of a congressional resolution re-designating the South Third Street Post Office in honor of Whalum, closing a cycle of sorts and forever attaching the name of Kenneth T. Whalum Sr. to one of the city's landmarks.

Political Notes:

Congressman Cohen was the target recently of what residents of the 9th District\ have characterized as a "push poll." Purportedly, the poll contained numerous statements casting Cohen in a negative light before asking recipients who they might prefer in a 2008 race between him and repeat challenger Nikki Tinker.

(At least one person polled recalled that the name of Cohen's congressional predecessor, Harold Ford Jr., now head of the Democratic Leadership Council, figured in a triad of potential candidates being asked about.)

• Early voting is now underway in the four city council runoffs that will be determined on November 8th.

Those involve Stephanie Gatewood vs. Bill Morrison in District 1; Brian Stephens vs. Bill Boyd in District 2; Harold Collins vs. Ike Griffith in District 3; and Edmund Ford Jr. and James O. Catchings in District 6.

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