Ernest Withers Reconsidered 


We pride ourselves on giving credit where it belongs, and this week a good deal of credit is clearly due The Commercial Appeal and its investigative reporter, Marc Perrusquia, for the startling revelations, based on research that was clearly prodigious, concerning one of our city's landmark citizens, the legendary late photographer Ernest Withers. It turns out that Withers had been a covert informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the personalities and developments of the civil rights movement, all the while he was serving as the Matthew Brady of that movement, chronicling its activity and furnishing it with iconic, energizing images.

It is impossible to think of the tragic and pivotal Memphis sanitation strike of 1968, in the service of which Martin Luther King was martyred, without visualizing the famous Withers frame of marchers massed behind their "I Am a Man" signs. He received proper veneration from the nation at large when he died in 2007, after a long and fruitful career during which his images, spanning the spectrum of African-American culture, defined its very nature, helping to ensure both its survival and its triumph.

It will take awhile before we can reprogram out attitudes toward Withers or to determine the extent to which it will be necessary to do so. The pictures speak for themselves — each of them worth well more than the proverbial thousand words — and certainly more than the confidential notes passed along to the eavesdroppers of the FBI.

Those journalists who knew Withers knew him to be a boon companion, prone — like all members of the Fourth Estate — to be caught up on his gossip and willing and able to pass along choice tidbits to those whom he trusted. Some of Withers' disclosures about the high and mighty of his time were eye-opening. Now that we know about the FBI connection, it is — how to say it? — bemusing to realize that a goodly amount of that dish, certainly the earthier stuff, must have found its way into the offices of our national police force, with consequences we can only begin to imagine.

No, we don't know how to recalculate our sense of who Ernest Withers was. Not just yet. But we do recall that, in the years after King's own passing, much was revealed about him that was, for good reason, left out of the official biographies. The all-too-human stuff. And we suspect that, shocked as we are just now, we will be able to keep the essential Ernest Withers in our minds as we previously did the essential MLK.

A Lesson from Cordova

At a time when political dissension and religious contention dominate too much of the news, it was more than refreshing recently to have learned of the sterling gesture made by the Rev. Steve Stone of Cordova's aptly named Heartsong Church in opening up the church's facilities to the nearby Memphis Islamic Center.

This was a doubly encouraging development — in that Stone's compassionate action ran counter to a rash of Muslim-bashing that has infected even presumably sane councils in the nation at large; and in that this act of human solidarity took place not in one of Memphis' liberal Midtown neighborhoods but in a teeming suburb that has taken its share of lumps for exemplifying urban sprawl.

See also ”Ernest Withers Was There” and ”Looking at Ernest Withers: Then and Now”

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