OPA-LOCKA, Fla. — Ernest Withers’s images are proof that Black people not only lead lives full of bravery and resilience, but also thrive during the most challenging of times. Flash Points: The Photography of Ernest Withers, curated by the Ten North Group and on view at the Arts & Recreation Center through August 31, showcases the breadth of Withers’s photographs — from the Civil Rights movement in Memphis to his work documenting musicians as the official photographer for Stax Records for 20 years. His photos illustrate what makes image-making an extraordinary task: its potential to preserve history so that future generations know who they are and where they come from.
Loretta McNeir from Birmingham, Alabama, who attended the gallery opening on June 16, remembers being 17 years old, sitting in the colored-only waiting room at the doctor’s office for hours to be seen. After what seemed like an endless wait, she gained the courage to walk into the Whites-only waiting area and demanded to see the doctor, and she did. McNeir recalled her fearlessness as she admired the bravery of the subjects in Withers’s photos, and his courage.
During the exhibition opening, Withers’s daughter, Rosalind Withers, and Joël Díaz, director of the Arts Foundation at Ten North Group, also spoke of Withers’s boldness. “There are some iconic people we [celebrate] every February, but on these walls, we hope to share things that you don’t know because there’s so much history to share,” said Rosalind, founder of the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery and trustee of the Dr. Ernest C. Withers Family Trust. The collection encompasses 1.8 million images taken by Ernest and many other photographs that she and her team have yet to sort through; 35 of them are on view in Opa-locka.
Withers’s images demonstrate that the Black history that Florida’s government is trying to ban students from learning is indisputable and factual.
Withers is often known as “the original Civil Rights photographer.” He was the only photographer to document the murder trial of Emmett Till in Mississippi; the “Little Rock Nine,” a group of African-American students who first integrated white Memphis schools in 1961; and Martin Luther King, Jr. riding the first desegregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1956. His most famous photograph, “I Am A Man,” was taken at the start of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike on February 12, 1968, which resulted from two Black garbage collectors, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, being crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck two weeks earlier. Workers were striking for better and more equitable working conditions. The black-and-white photo shows a group of male sanitary workers in line holding signs that read “I Am A Man.” The march, which brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis, was his last before he died in the Tennessee city on April 4, 1968.
Withers first started experimenting with photography using his sister’s camera, but his true passion deepened in grade school. Though he was too young to be a photographer for the yearbook committee, he dared to walk up to his school’s auditorium stage and photograph Marva Trotter Louis, boxer Joe Louis’s wife, the Halle Berry of the day. He then developed the photo and handed it out at school. The image made him the most popular kid in the schoolyard.
In 1942, he joined the army and attended the Army School of Photography, which later led him to photograph White soldiers in Saipan, a United States-occupied Japanese island. He sent the cash back to his wife. When he returned from World War II, he used the money he got from the G.I. Bill to open a photo studio in his Memphis neighborhood with the slogan “Pictures Tell Stories.” The studio laid the foundation for his photography career in Memphis, earning him the respect of his community, earning him the trust of notable figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr.
But Withers also lived a secret life as an informant for the FBI since at least 1968. He met with agents to provide them with information ranging from insider details on upcoming protests to personal details of Civil Rights movement leaders. Many debate whether his work as an informant undermines the impact of his photos.
As I looked at Withers’s photo of Moses Wright, uncle of Emmett Till, on view as part of Flash Points, the bravery of both the subject and the photographer spoke more to me than this problematic aspect of his life. In the image, Wright, under threat of being lynched, stands up in the courtroom during Emmett Till’s trial to point to the White man he saw take his nephew from his house. After the judge warned that photography was not allowed in the courtroom, Withers placed his camera on the ground and captured a shot of Wright. This black-and-white image is the last time Wright was seen before his murder. Without Withers’s willingness to document this moment of courage, we would be missing an essential piece of Black history. Withers gave the photograph to Getty Images to run worldwide on the day of the trial; he only received credit for the image three years ago, according to Rosalind.
The exhibition also includes a photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reverend Ralph Abernathy sitting on one of Montgomery’s first desegregated buses in 1958. On view is an image of Dr. King standing up and holding his hands together, staring at the crowd preparing to speak in support of the Memphis Sanitation Strikers at Mason Temple in Memphis in 1968. Another photo portrays Ernie Banks, Larry Doby, and Jackie Robinson standing side-by-side outside a dugout at Martin Stadium in Memphis in 1953. An image of Ike Turner playing his guitar and Tina Turner singing at Club Paradise in 1962 — her shoulder covered in fresh bruises from blows delivered by Ike — is placed with pictures of Elvis and BB King. Displayed is a photo of three of the Memphis 13 (Michael Wills, son of AW Wills; Harry Williams; and Dwania Kyles, daughter of Reverend Billy Kyles) smiling outside a car window on the first day they integrated Memphis elementary schools.
A photograph of the entrance to Overton Park Zoo with a sign that reads “No white people allowed in the zoo today” inspired Rosliand to move from her home in South Florida to Memphis to take over her father’s trust. She is now in charge of the more than a million photos her father took after he died in 2007. The picture captures the one day of the year when Black people were permitted in the zoo, which was when the animals got their cages cleaned, resulting in visitors being unable to view many of them. Black children and adults walk behind the sign in the photo’s background.
“I was really torn. I wanted to stay in Florida. My husband was from the Bahamas, so we had a very nice life to take on something this serious and a lot to give up,” Rosliand told me. “So I went to my dad’s archive, and as I went through, it was overwhelming. But this one photograph just looked at me and just hit me in the forehead, and I said, ‘I have to do the right thing.’ They tell us every day that we don’t have a record of who we are. They don’t know that we exist, and here I have all of my history, 60 years of it.”
Withers’s photographs, in the words of Rosalind, are truth and power. As Withers said in the PBS documentary The Picture Taker (2023): “You have to have your own vision.”
“You’ll have to have a sense of morality, honesty,” Withers continued. “Is it true? Does it hurt? What good does it do? Ain’t nobody can tell you your moral character. ‘Give you the qualities to be what you is and not what you ain’t,’ my father said that. Cause if you ain’t what you is, you is what you ain’t.”