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January 7, 2023

Segregation and Music Scenes in Memphis, Tennesse Through Ernest C. Withers’ Pictures From the 1940s to 1960s

Ernest C. Withers (August 7, 1922 – October 15, 2007) was an African-American photojournalist. He is best known for capturing over 60 years of African American history in the segregated South, with iconic images of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Emmett Till, Memphis sanitation strike, Negro league baseball, and musicians including those related to Memphis blues and Memphis soul.

Sanitation workers assemble in front of Clayborn Temple for a solidarity march, Memphis, Tennessee, 1968.

Withers’ interest in photography began in his eighth-grade year at a Memphis school. More than seventy years later, he continued to maintain a studio on Beale Street – once the Memphis epicentre of the musical life of the nation. 

Throughout the 1950s, Withers was, in his own words, “a news photographer,” “recording events that were taking place.” Momentous events were occurring, and he recorded them for African American newspapers across the country.

Portrait in a Cotton Field, no date.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, Withers travelled throughout the South with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., James Meredith, Medgar Evers and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement. He provided images that made the dramatic stories of the era – a vivid Dr. King riding the first desegregated bus in Montgomery, murders of Civil Rights workers, voter registration drives, lynchings and the powerful Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. The result is an encompassing and moving chronicle of the great American crusade of the second half of the Twentieth Century.

As he travelled across the South, Withers’ base was always his hometown. Take a look back at life in mid-century Memphis through these 22 pictures taken by Withers:

The WDIA Twins, 1948.

William Edwin Jones pushes daughter Renee Andrewnetta Jones (8 months old) during protest, Main Street, Memphis, Tennessee, 1950s.

Memphis zoo segregation.

Rhythm 'n' Blues Revue, on the midway at the Cottonmaker's Jubilee in the Beale Street Auditorium Park, early 1950's.

Howlin' Wolf, Memphis grocery store, 1951.

BB King on stage at the Hippodrome, Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, with Bill Harvey, 1950.

Ernest Withers’ Beale Street studio, no date.

Junienne Briscoe, 16 years old, joined the picket lines along Main Street, no date.

An assembly at Booker T Washington high school, no date.

A Memphis record store in the summer, 1954.

Aretha Franklin SCLC convention, Club Paradise, Memphis, Tennessee.

James Brown, Mid-South Coliseum, Memphis, Tennessee.

Bobby "Blue" Bland, Club Handy, Memphis, Tennessee, late 1950s.

Double exposure of a nighttime march, no date.

Michael Willis, Harry Williams and Dwania Kyles sit in the back of a car during the first day of Memphis school integration, 1961.

Tina Turner, Ike and Tina Revue, Club Paradise, 1962.

Student volunteer working to register voters, 1964-65.

Martin Luther King Jr waiting to be introduced at the Alabama Capitol after leading the 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, 1965.

I Am a Man sanitation workers strike, Memphis, Tennessee, 1968.

Memorial March after assassination of MLK, Main St Memphis, 1968.


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