Ernest C. Withers: Aug. 7, 1922 - Oct. 15 2007: The indisputable dean of civil rights photography

whenry@tri-statedefender.com | 10/24/2007, 7 p.m.

Andrew “Rome” Withers and wife Cheri Withers mourn. (Photo by Warren Roseborough)


For the man who captured an era of wanton violence, racial strife and iconic images of noted African Americans, a send-off of glowing tributes was fitting.

And that is exactly what was given to Ernest C. Withers, the indisputable dean of civil rights photography.

Withers died Oct. 15 following a Sept. 23 stroke. He was 85. His “home going” was an uplifting, albeit lengthy (about four hours) affair.

Nearly 1,000 mourners filed into the service at Pentecostal Temple Institutional Church Of God In Christ. It was crowned with a procession from the church to Beale Street, where a wreath was hung on the door of Withers’ studio at 333 Beale Street.

A solemn crowd stretched along both sides of the world famous street. Onlookers gazed at the string of cars in tow behind The Rudy Williams Band and in tune to “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” With top hats and derbies, their horns wailed Withers’ passing. He was laid to rest at Elmwood Cemetery.

Ekpe Abioto, a local musician, played the jimbe drum to start the home going. He led the family and others to the front of the church where each member paused before Withers’ bronze casket. He was wearing his trademark, a traditional African kufi. A camera, the tool of his trade, was placed inside.

“We believe death is a fulfillment of life,” said Abioto, who conducted an African libation, a ritual that includes calling a person’s name and pouring water into the ground as part of the remembrance.

“As long as you call a person’s name, the spirit will still be around,” Abioto said. The crowd called out several names, including Ernest Withers Jr., Dryal Withers and Dedrick “Teddy” Withers, who preceded their father in death.

Friends recalled Withers’ humble spirit and his 60-plus years on the battlefield for civil rights. “We thank God for his life and what he shared,” said Memphis Mayor Dr. Willie W. Herenton.

Herenton said he read Withers’ obituary in the New York Times on a recent airplane trip. “They don’t put just anybody’s obituary in the New York Times,” he said.

Standing 6 foot 6, Herenton said he kneeled at Withers’ feet on the day the city of Memphis celebrated the photographer’s 85th birthday in the Hall of Mayors. It was the last such public outing for Withers.

Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, pastor of Monumental Baptist Church, recalled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and Withers’ refusal to take a photograph during the autopsy and before Dr. King’s body was prepared for public viewing at the funeral home.

“He waited until he was fully dressed,” said Kyles. “He was a special person. He was a man of integrity.”

Each speaker recalled Withers’ wisdom, gratuity, advice and how much he loved Dorothy Withers, his wife of 65 years. John Elkington, Beale Street’s landlord, said he loved Withers, too.