A well-earned tribute for a well-lived life, career

newsroom@tri-statedefender.com | 8/8/2007, 7 p.m.

Ernest Withers

Thirty years ago, the renowned photographer Dr. Ernest C. Withers approached a young reporter at a banquet and pulled him aside for a professional “talking to.”

It wasn’t Clayborn Temple, said Dr. Withers, making reference to the location of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech. “It was Mason Temple. You can’t make that mistake.”
   
The reporter was an African American, one of a handful that worked for the city’s daily newspaper. Dr. Withers wanted him to know that a whole lot of people were counting on him to “make it” and that many who never had the reporter’s opportunity had paid the price for his possibility.
   
Over the years the relationship between the reporter and his new journalism mentor grew. Today, the reporter is executive editor of this newspaper and this week he had the opportunity to join with about a hundred or so of others who paid tribute to Dr. Withers on the celebration of his 85th birthday.
   
The celebration took place in the Hall of Mayors at City Hall and evolved out of conversations between Mayor Willie W. Herenton and Clift Dates, president and chief executive officer of CDA Incorporated, a multi-state security company.
   
“Brother Withers,” said Dates was like a father. “I am going to hang with him as long as I can hang with him.”
   
It is no secret that Dr. Wither’s health has waned. And he has no hesitancy in saying that “I am waiting,” a reference to the end of his life that is a bit unsettling to the many who love and respect him as the man, artist and legend.
   
In his tribute remarks to Dr. Withers, John Elkington, who heads Performa, the company that manages the Beale Street entertainment district, unveiled a musical note in his honor and remarked that Dr. Wither’s now is the only person with a note and a Beale street building named for him.

“He is not afraid of evil,” said Elkington, “He has fought it hard.”

Police Chief Larry Godwin recalled Dr. Withers photographing him long before Godwin became the city’s top officer. He presented a plaque in observation of Dr. Wither’s pioneering role as one of the original nine African American policemen.
   
Mayor Herenton quipped that while some wonder if he listens to anybody he can and has listened to Dr. Withers for hours. “I’ve never met a man who had more knowledge about this city. . . .Your human spirit has touched so many.”
   
The occasion put Dr. Withers on the other end of a camera, the instrument he used to tell the world about the unfolding of the civil rights movement and so much more. There was even an out-of-town crew filming for a documentary.
   
“You are a doing a documentary on a genius, said Herenton. “They don’t make them like Brother Withers anymore.”
   
Dr. Withers was helped to the podium, where he talked strong and direct. Surveying the crowd, he said, “I am surprised in one sense and deeply appreciative in another sense.”
   
He took those present through his life, paying respect to his wife, Dorothy, for her guiding hand in the raising of their seven boys and one girl, none of whom went to jail, he stressed.
   
Afterwards, Dr. Withers, who also defines himself as “Baba Kwesi,” father of many, sat and greeted the many well wishers, including the once-young reporter who now is executive editor of the newspaper that Dr. Withers helped make famous.
   
“I have confidence in you,” he whispered.
   
Thanks Baba Kwesi for setting the standard.