The Withers Underground

Print More

In miles and years, the Queens Borough Public Library is far removed from the battlegrounds of the civil rights movement that transformed America in the 1950s and 1960s. But that distance is now a little shorter, with the Library Gallery’s exhibition Let Us March On! Selected Civil Rights Photographs of Ernest C. Withers, 1955–1968.

As the title suggests, the collection is meant neither as a comprehensive chronicle of the civil rights movement, nor as a Withers career retrospective. But the photographer, a lifelong Memphis resident whose other photographic subjects have included baseball great Satchel Paige and musicians like Elvis Presley and Howlin’ Wolf, was drawn by work and passion into the civil rights orbit time and again.

A work assignment first brought Withers into contact with the nascent movement, as he photographed the Emmett Till lynching trial in Mississippi in 1955. Till, a black teenager from Chicago visiting relatives in the South, was lynched for speaking to a white woman on the street. It was one of the first times that a lynching had even made it into the courts, and Withers was on hand when the inevitable not-guilty verdict stoked moral indignation in the North and black anger across the country.

Those photos, unfortunately, are not on view at the library. But for anyone intrigued by the famous and forgotten faces who fought for full citizenship for southern blacks, what is on hand is a revelation. The surprisingly short and dapper Martin Luther King, Jr., all of 26, leading the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, comes across as human and vulnerable in Withers’ pictures. Particularly striking is a photo of King and longtime collaborator Rev. Ralph Abernathy, riding on Montgomery’s first desegregated bus after the boycott’s successful conclusion. Rather than wearing triumphant expressions, both look humble and apprehensive–two travelers at the outset, not the conclusion, of a long and uncertain journey.

As a friend of King’s, Withers had intimate access to the movement’s most visible spokesman. His informal shots of King resting in his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis during the 1966 March Against Fear seem unremarkable–until the viewer realizes that King was barely 20 yards from the spot where he would be gunned down two years later.

But as civil rights organizer Ella Baker famously said, “The Movement made Martin, rather than Martin making the Movement.” Withers might have been at his best in capturing the faces of those anonymous marchers, volunteers and activists who made the movement, but he also catches the world they sought to change. His images of Memphis in the 1950s include one sign posted in the driveway of the city zoo: “No White People Allowed in Zoo Today.” Of course, only white people were allowed on the other six days of the week.

He also captures a counter-protest at City Hall, in which two well-groomed white teens hold a neatly lettered sign reading “Segregation or War.” The “or” is in script and underlined; the other words in block capitals. It’s as if June Cleaver herself whipped it up, in between seeing to the laundry and getting dinner ready.

Let Us March On! Selected Civil Rights Photographs of Ernest C. Withers, 1955-1968, will be on display at the Queens Borough Public Library until January 7.