As ‘Baba Kwesi,’ Dr. Ernest C. Withers was the father to many

kajanaku@tri-statedefender.com | 10/17/2007, 7 p.m.

Dr. Ernest Withers

The hallway leading to the photography studio of Dr. Ernest C. Withers begins at the sidewalk along Beale Street and extends almost the length of the short city block to Beale Alley on the South.
   
I looked through the glass doors and I could see him back in his office. He beckoned for me to come on back, but the doors were locked. He motioned for me to enter through the adjoining store, but the clerk would not allow me to pass through.
   
For the next few minutes, Dr. Withers ever so slowly made his way toward me, stopping after every few steps to catch his breath. Walking was difficult for him the last few months of his life.
   
When he opened the door, I greeted him as had become my custom: “Baba (father),” I said, using the first of his “freedom” names. “I just came down to check on you and say hello.”
   
It was the first week of August 2007, two months before the city of Memphis would get the news that the most renowned photographer associated with the unfolding of the civil rights movement had died. Dr. Ernest C. Withers, also known as “Baba Kwesi” — father to many — died Oct. 15, 2007.
   
On that August day, as we walked slowly back to his office, I asked ‘Baba Kwesi’ what he was up to. “What do you think I’m doing,” he asked, not waiting for my answer. “I’m waiting.”
   
With a sense of calm that was both disconcerting and reassuring to me, he talked about his impending death as if it was the next photojournalist assignment.
   
For the next hour or so, he reminisced about his wife, his children, his career, his mother and father, Memphis, family values, old editors for whom he had worked at the Tri-State Defender, how little he had been compensated for his work by the “Negro press” and others, and what he expected of me as the new executive editor of the Tri-State Defender.
   
He lamented about the state of African American businesses in Memphis and the country and said we’ve got to get some economics going on.

I knew and know he is right, but it wasn’t a day for me to say anything. It was a time to listen. I am so glad I did.

A few days later, Baba Kwesi showed up at the Tri-State Defender’s new office on Beale Street and shared these same memories with me and the newspaper’s stalwarts — Dr. Sybil Mitchell and Wiley Henry. Each of us instantly knew that we were sharing a precious moment.
   
Soon after the visit, the three of us committed to pull together a newspaper tribute to Baba Kwesi. We quickly learned of Mayor Willie W. Herenton’s planned tribute at City Hall and decided to fold the event into our plans. And while Mayor Herenton took some flak from some who viewed the ceremony as a political ploy, those who loved Baba Kwesi and knew of his health realized Dr. Herenton made the right move.
   
Many people will say many different and sincere things about Baba Kwesi as we celebrate his life in the days ahead. None will be truer than his own admonition that we get beyond the black-white drama in Memphis and the nation.
   
That task he left to me and to you.
   
This Sunday from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m at the National Civil Rights Museum, the Tri-State Defender will celebrate its first 55 years and pay tribute to many Memphians whose lives greatly have enhanced the course of life in Metro Memphis. Baba Kwesi/Dr. Withers already was among those chosen for recognition.
   
Now the event will reflect a special dedication to “the father of many,” and provide an opportunity for those he touched to recommit to the task of doing greater works.

(Written by Dr. Karanja A. Ajanaku, executive editor of The Tri-State Defender)