Visit Withers Collection Museum & Gallery in Memphis

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The Ernest C. Withers Collection Museum & Gallery in Memphis documents the Civil Rights Movement and more. Read on to discover why you should start your visit to Memphis at the Withers Collection Museum. 

B.B. King was one of his best friends. Ray Charles played the saxophone. Ike Turner stared at a mark on Tina’s arm as she sang during a concert. Stories lie dormant within photographs, like buried seeds, ready to bloom with interpretation.

Internationally acclaimed Memphis photographer Ernest C. Withers is mainly known for capturing the civil rights movement. However, about 1.8 million photos exist to document everything from civil rights, Memphis blues, soul, rock n roll, Negro League Baseball, and African American lifestyle. Although Withers captured some of America’s most iconic civil rights images, he secretly worked as an informant for the FBI, reporting on the people he photographed. When you visit Memphis, Tennessee, seeing the National Civil Rights Museum, Sun Studio, and Graceland is expected. However, we recommend visiting the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery on Beale Street first.

But, this museum is for more than just those seeking the civil rights movement. It’s about learning to look into the souls of all people. Connecting with photographs is indisputable as you wander through this museum of black-and-white images. Withers is a master at catching emotion through the facial expressions and body language of everyone in the frame. I felt incredibly immersed in each photograph.

Ike and Tina Turner performing. Photo © Dr. Ernest C. Withers, Sr. courtesy of the WITHERS FAMILY TRUST

From a Free Brownie to a Beale Street Photography Studio

On a recent visit to Memphis, Tennessee, I interviewed Ms. Rosalind Withers, Ernest C. Withers’ daughter and founder, for an exclusive interview at the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery. 

Withers began his photography career in 8th grade with a bet and a Brownie camera, which Ms. Withers said was a gift from his sister’s boyfriend. Marva Trotter Louis, wife of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Lewis, visited his school. Armed with his Brownie and fearlessness, he approached the stage and snapped shots of the famous visitor. 

Immediately after graduating from high school and marrying, he registered for the draft in 1941, the year America entered World War II. About a year later, he swayed a transfer to the Army photography school in North Carolina. While stationed in the South Pacific, Withers found a niche in taking photos of white soldiers to mail home to their loved ones. Per Ms.Withers, soldiers consistently lined up around the tent, waiting for their snapshot. 

After discharge, Withers bought a photo studio on Beale Street with assistance from the GI Bill. As a Memphis freelance photojournalist, he shot nearly 60 years of African American and cultural history and amassed an estimated 1.8 million photographs. The faces, the music, the stories—Beale Street gave him a microcosm of humanity, all waiting to be captured on film. 

Julie Ann Briscoe protesting in Memphis. Photo © Dr. Ernest C. Withers, Sr. courtesy of the WITHERS FAMILY TRUST

Negro League Baseball

Ms. Withers said that her dad loved baseball, particularly Negro League baseball. Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige were a few of his favorites. Charlie Pride, a good friend, pitched for the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro League before he became a country music star. As I looked at Negro League photos on the wall, Ms.Withers motioned me to the picture of Satchel Paige posing with five of her seven brothers. She also said the Memphis Red Sox hired her father for their press and promotional materials. Furthermore, Withers allowed baseball players to pose as they wanted to be portrayed to nullify prejudiced stereotypes of African Americans in the Jim Crow South.

Charlie Pride before he became a country music star. Photo © Dr. Ernest C. Withers, Sr. courtesy of the WITHERS FAMILY TRUST

Memphis Blues, Soul, and Rock-n-Roll

Beale Street was the center of the Memphis African-American social and music scene. Musical artists were friends of Withers, and B.B. King grew into one of his closest. I particularly like the photo of young B.B. King stylishly dressed in a suitcoat, tie, and Bermuda shorts, slightly bending over, playing blues riffs on his electric guitar. Also, during your visit, notice the photo of Ray Charles performing with a saxophone, not a piano. Another is Ike Turner playing electric guitar behind Tina Turner, gazing at the mark on her shoulder as she belts out tunes into the microphone.

Ms.Withers points to a photograph of Elvis with her two brothers on the wall. She said that her father viewed Elvis as a little boy, and he talked about Elvis’ relationship with the swanky Lansky Brothers haberdashery on Beale Street. Elvis learned how to tie a necktie there.

Lansky Brothers built a reputation as the Memphis fashion headquarters for musicians with bright, vivid colors and satiny fabrics. Window displays at their Beale Street clothing store showcased visually stunning outfits that exploded with color and energy. Some lavishly dressed performers Lansky Brothers outfitted along with Elvis included B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Isaac Hayes, Little Richard, David Porter, Pat Boone, and Rufus Thomas. You can look closely throughout Memphis attractions and the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery for many of these eye-catching outfits.

Elvis Presley and B.B. King at the WDIA Goodwill Review in Memphis. Photo © Dr. Ernest C. Withers, Sr. courtesy of the WITHERS FAMILY TRUST

Withers Documented Civil Rights

White men abducted 14-year-old Emmett Till in the middle of the night from his uncle’s house in Money, Mississippi. Till was later found dead in the Tallahatchie River, mutilated, and murdered. In 1955, two men, J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, went on trial for the murder in Sumner, Mississippi. The presiding judge banned photography of the murder trial, but Withers secretly snapped a photo that shook the nation. During his testimony, Till’s uncle, Mose Wright, stood and pointed to Milam as one of the men who kidnapped Till. 

Withers knew the importance of documenting accurate representations of the trial since the white press typically construed facts against African Americans. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took notice and trusted Withers to photograph profound moments of the Civil Rights Movement. According to Ms. Withers, her father became Dr. King’s personal photographer when he visited the region.

Withers forged meaningful relationships with Dr. King, Medgar Evers, and James Meredith and was often the only photographer documenting critical civil rights events. Cornerstone civil rights events that Withers photographed included the strike of Memphis sanitation workers, which led to the assassination of Dr. King, and the Montgomery bus boycott.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Lorraine Motel following the March Against Fear. Photo © Dr. Ernest C. Withers, Sr. courtesy of the WITHERS FAMILY TRUST

Ernest Withers, FBI Informant

Much has been written about Withers’ role as an FBI informant during the Civil Rights movement. It’s complicated, but no one has solid answers since this information came to light after his passing. There’s much speculation, but Ms. Withers wants people to look at his lifetime of work instead. As with everyone, don’t allow one element to discredit someone’s integrity. 

“My father was able to show evidence of the reality of life at that time because so much was swept under the rug.” — Rosalind Withers

Rosalind Withers talks about her father’s role in the Emmett Till trial. Photo by Tom Manus

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Memphis Tips

Withers’ photographs are found throughout Memphis. Be sure to visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music because Withers was Stax Records’ official photographer for over two decades. When visiting Sun Studio, look for photos taken by Withers. Additional places to look are the National Civil Rights Museum, Graceland, and the Ernest C. Withers House Museum. To buy unique clothing, check out the current Lansky Brothers shop, Lansky at The Peabody, located in The Peabody Memphis hotel

Withers didn’t think of himself as an artist but a historian. Study his photographs to understand how life looked for African Americans during the fight for civil rights. Visit the Memphis place that most tourists don’t know about, although it sits right under their noses on Beale Street. For people who’ve seen all the standard attractions in Memphis and are looking for something different, the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery is perfect.

We invite you to explore Wander With Wonder for more things to do when visiting Tennessee.