The Museum & Gallery
Dr. Withers’ last working studio on 333 Beale Street was named in his honor by the City of Memphis is 1995. In February 2011, The Withers Colleciton Museum and Gallery was opened to the public and houses 7,000 square feet of Memphis and broader American history.
We also utilize our downtown footprint to host public panel discussions to engage and educate the community we serve. At our Talk About it Tuesdays forum, we discuss relevant topics such as Financial Literacy, the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s and today, College Applications and many other topics relevant to modern life.
Additionally, the Museum serves as an historic venue for private events. The Studio Lounge can be converted to house luncheons, wedding events, parties, receptions, corporate events, scholastic events, and various other functions!
The Museum has something for everyone! In it you can find work from across four sections of Withers’ Archive:
Where you can view powerful and personal images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and other key figures in the struggle, alongside images of everyday activism.
From Elvis, to Aretha. BB King to James Brown. Isaac Hayes to Tina Turner, Dr. Withers captured many of the musicians who birthed Rock n Roll, Soul, and Blues as we know it today both as, and after, they got their chops up and down Beale Street.
Withers captured images of Baseball greats like Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, and Willie Mays before and after they broke the color barrier. His Negro League archive is an unparalleled treasure.
While Withers was busy compiling this impressive archive, he was also capturing quotidian African American life in Memphis. Images of people at clubs, in their homes, at social events, and just walking down the street make up over half his archive.
About The Withers Digital Archive
Withers captured over 1.8 million images of American History. Ongoing labor is required to research, catalog, preserve, digitize, and make available to the public such a vast number of images. In addition to the Civil Rights, Music, Sports, and Lifestyle collections listed above, the archive contains a large Politics collection. This includes presidents from Kennedy to Clinton and many other well-known figures.
We strive to make these images available to the public for educational use, licensing, viewing, and purchase so that this history continues to be of service to our communities. It costs about $7 to catalog, digitize, and ensure the preservation of each Withers image. Licensing and purchases of Withers images helps us in our efforts. Donations go above and beyond in aiding to preserve and share this unique archive
Ernest C. Withers
Dr. Ernest Withers, Sr. (1922 – 2007) a native Memphian, is an internationally acclaimed photographer recognized for his iconic photographs in Memphis and the broader south during the Civil Rights era. His well-known images of musicians during Memphis’ early days of legendary blues, soul, and rock and roll scene; his chronicling of Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and participants in Memphis’ 1968 “I AM A MAN” sanitation strike; and his preservation of the end of the Negro Leagues comprise an unequaled time capsule of the heartland of Mid-Century America.
Withers images are in the permanent collection of The Smithsonian and other esteemed institutions. He took pictures of public facilities as they integrated, such as the Cossitt Library, of Memphis, where Novelist Richard Wright checked out books under the guise of running errands for his white boss in the 1920’s, and the Memphis City Zoo. Withers also travelled, capturing Dr. King riding one of the first desegregated buses Montgomery, Alabama, at the end of the famed bus boycott there. In 1955, he was employed by the Tri-State Defender newspaper in Chicago to cover the trial of Roy Bryant and JW Milam for the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi. Here, as in his own community,
Withers went beyond the call of a photographer by joining other members of the Black Press in persuading locals to testify against the murderers, as well smuggling those who testified out of the state following the trial to ensure that a similar fate did not befall them. Some of his most famous shots are those taken during his unparalleled coverage of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike in 1968, the revolt which culminated in the assassination of Dr. King.
Apart from documenting those fighting for racial justice, Withers also gained acclaim by capturing some of the lighter sides of life. His archive includes the insightful images of Negro League baseball, with negatives of Jackie Robinson and Ernie Banks stored alongside an image of 17 year old Willie Mays, not yet the “Say Hey Kid,” after winning a championship with the Birmingham Black Barons. Also preserved are the famed Memphians who brought soul, rock n roll, and the blues into the white, mainstream music scene. BB King, Elvis Presley, and Aretha Franklin, were some of the musicians captured by Ernest Withers, often before their rise to fame. Being the official photographer for Stax records, his images of David Porter, Isaac Hayes, and Rufus and Carla Thomas paint a picture of the heart of the American music scene in the mid-20th century.
In addition to this wide breadth of subject matter, Withers’ archive stands apart from other famous photographers by the personal nature of many of his pictures. He was not an aloof artist who would simply enter a scene, snap a picture, and be on his way. Withers was always an active member of his community who could tell you not only the names of almost everyone pictured in his 1.8 million image archive, but those of their mothers, cousins, and the story of their lives. This personal connection formed with his subjects, even those he had just met walking down the street, allowed him to capture moments full of vibrant emotion – whether joy, sorrow, or something in between – on film. His images of Dr. King lying in a bed at the Lorraine Motel, or that of Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke lightly holding hands (at a time where their relationship would have been taboo as both had fathers who were pastors) are exceptional glimpses of the human side of these famous personalities, so rarely preserved on film.
This repository of personal histories extends far beyond the shots of famous individuals and events for which Ernest Withers is currently known. Over half of the 1.8 million images that make up his collection are windows into the life of everyday Memphians. Tableaus captured in Martins Stadium (one of the few baseball parks actually owned by a Negro League team), countless clubs on Beale Street, weddings, funerals of loved ones, or just walking down the street allow us to access a quotidian side of American life rarely glimpsed by the modern public. At a time when having one’s photograph taken was a special occasion, Withers captured hundreds of thousands of the fleeting, intimate moments that make a life. These images, teeming with vivacity, paint a brilliant picture of the city and its people that brought America Rock n Roll – a remarkable history which otherwise would have been lost to time.
By The Numbers
In his more than sixty-year career, Withers accumulated a collection of an estimated 1.8 million photographs; his works appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The TriState Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, Jet, Ebony, Newsweek, Life, People, and Time, and many other smaller publications. His fine art prints have been featured in touring exhibits and shows around the world. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. currently displays over 30 of Ernest C. Withers’ images. For his life’s work, Withers was elected to the Black Press Hall of Fame and received an honorary doctorate from the Massachusetts College of Art, Rhodes College, and other institutions of higher education. Withers had nine children and married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Curry. Ernest C. Withers passed away on Monday, October 15, 2007, at the age of eighty-five.