This week on In Black America, producer and host John L. Hanson, Jr. discusses the career of legendary photographer Ernest C. Withers with Richard Cahan, author of Revolution in Black and White: Photographs of the Civil Rights Era by Ernest C. Withers.
Announcer [00:00:15] From the University of Texas at Austin, KUT Radio, this is In Black America.
Richard Cahan [00:00:23] The pictures that he took from the 1942 to 1968. They were really documenting the movement. They were documenting the dream. And it ended with, you know, the assassination of Martin Luther King. And obviously, the movement continued. But times changed. His cameras changed him. He moved on to a 35 millimeter camera and took mostly color film. So it’s a whole nother look at, you know, there’s a there’s a beauty to this, you know, classic black and white photography. He really knew what he was doing. And and I think the pictures after that, not that they don’t have value, but they don’t have the drama. That’s why we really took the whole collection. And we said, what’s the most important message he had? And that message, I think, was kind of the the beauty of resistance, the resilience that African-Americans had during these decades.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:01:11] Richard Cahan, author of Revolution in Black and White photographs of the Civil Rights Era by Ernest C Withers, published by City Files Press. It was a self-made man. He was one of the most prominent African-American photographers during the civil rights years. During the course of his career. He took thousands of photographs that documented the movement from the Emmett Till trial in 1955 to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. What started out as a way to support his family turned into a pictorial history of life in the South and the epic events that helped shape this nation. Whether it was there for the Little Rock school battle. He was there for Medgar Evers funeral and the Memphis sanitation workers strike. He was also there to photograph weddings, high school proms and nightlife on Beale Street. I’m John L. Hanson Jr. and welcome to another edition of In Black America on this week program Revolution in Black and White photographs of the civil rights era by Ernest C. Withers with author Richard Cahan In Black America.
Richard Cahan [00:02:17] That is very true. People really, you know, talk a lot in Memphis about the kind of the honor of being photographed by whites, whether it was by whether he was, in a sense, you know, came to their house when they were just photographed. And I think that that, you know, he he had a lot of self-confidence in himself. He always, you know, positioned himself right directly in front of his subjects. He certainly had the skill because he had done this for so many years, so many decades. And he made the scene, you know, he you know, an event wasn’t even an event in listeners whether he was there. So in a sense, people waited for him. There’s so many smiles in this book. They are so pleased that he’s that they’re being photographed such a different time than today when, you know, you know, when you when so many people are weary about being photographed, they don’t want to be photographed.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:03:07] You know, when owners see. Withers began his photographing career in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. He couldn’t go to the public libraries or be admitted to his best hospitals. Had it not been for his sister who gave him his first camera while he was in high school. We can only imagine what life would have been like for him, whether it is the genes behind many of the iconic photos we see today documenting the civil rights era. Besides his work with the moment he recorded on film The Everyday World in the south of African-Americans, proms, funerals, people where work and play and street life, he created a stunning record of what it was like to live in Memphis and the Mid-South. He also was a noted baseball photographer documenting Negro League Baseball. He also was a noted music photographer taking thousands of photographs of early jazz, blues, rock and roll and R&B performers. With his work is archived in the Library of Congress and is slated for the permanent collection of the Sony Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Recently In Black America spoke with Richard Cahan here regarding this amazing photojournalist.
Richard Cahan [00:04:17] They call my colleague Michael Williams and I. They call us photo historians, which is a term we never even heard before. We we were called it. We were both photojournalists and I was what’s called the picture editor. So I work with photographers and photographs. And and I learned that there’s a lot of impact that words and pictures can can have when they’re work together. And I think we’ve all learned that now, you know, try to put up a Facebook post without a picture and you’ll realize how important pictures are.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:04:46] And in your previous life, you a program officer at a foundation.
Richard Cahan [00:04:51] I was for a short time, but most of my life has been as a photojournalist. I worked for the Chicago Sun-Times for six years and I worked for newspapers most of my life. I was a journalist down at I put journalist down on my iris.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:05:04] I know. That’s right. So what sparked that initial interest in photojournalism?
Richard Cahan [00:05:08] Well, I actually it’s it’s a long story. But to make it very short, I, I became. I’m interested in the idea of words and pictures working together. I think I was a kid and I went to the library and I got a Jackie Kennedy book about a tour of the White House. And I realized that through pictures, you can go anywhere in the world and with words, you can explain it all. So, uh, it was exciting to me then, and it still is now, six decades later.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:05:37] Is your alma mater the school that beat Michigan the other day?
Richard Cahan [00:05:40] It is. It is. And it’s a school that has almost beaten several other top basketball teams. I’ll believe it when I see it.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:05:48] I have to say. How did you happen to come across Ernest Withers?
Richard Cahan [00:05:52] I was down in Memphis and a friend of mine said I had to go see the Withers museum. There’s a little museum at the end of Beale Street that’s run by Roslyn Withers, who’s the daughter of Ernest Withers, and she keeps this little photo museum open till about midnight so that people who listen to music and drink on Beale Street can kind of end up there. And as she says, people come into the museum drunk and they oftentimes leave sober because they see these photographs, which is which are really great gifts to America, of photographs of the civil rights movement and photographs of entertainers and photographs of the end of Negro League baseball that Ernest Withers took starting in the 1940s. And he continued almost up until his death in 2007.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:06:40] How did Ernest become interested in photography?
Richard Cahan [00:06:43] Well, he was actually it was during World War Two, and he was on the he was stationed in the Pacific Islands, and he found that if he took pictures of GI’s standing in front of bushes and holding their guns, that they loved it and they sent it back home. And he realized that there was really a business of taking pictures. And as soon as he got out of the Army in 1946, he started his own business. And and really, this is a book of somebody who was really hungry, hungry to make a living. He had eight children and he took on just about any assignment. You know, he was the that’s really one of the things that makes him unusual. He was the school photographer. He photographed proms. He was at funerals. He’d wake up every Sunday morning and go to churches and photograph churches. And and as he kept doing it decade after decade, he realized that he was really just as much of a historian as he was a photographer.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:07:39] I was interested in in reading that his entree prior to taking pictures of the servicemen when he went to the Pacific, he was there to photograph the construction of a runway or airport, or right?
Richard Cahan [00:07:50] Yeah, right. That was his job. He was a photographer and he was documenting things for the the Army Corps of photographers that were out there in the Pacific.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:08:00] Now, one would think that if you’re a photographer, you got all this elaborate equipment. But he didn’t have that.
Richard Cahan [00:08:05] He didn’t. He uh, number one, I don’t think he could afford it. And, you know, he had camera little very simple cameras. I mean, they’re not simple by today’s standards, but they were there were box cameras that I remember.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:08:18] I remember.
Richard Cahan [00:08:19] Yeah. That took little two and a quarter negatives. And he always talked about how he never could afford long lenses, you know, telescopic lenses. So his feet were his long lens. If he needed to get a close up, he walked up to people.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:08:31] Tell us about the story when when Joe Louis, his wife, came to his school and he was the others, do they tend to go up to take a picture?
Richard Cahan [00:08:39] Yeah, he was in he was in elementary school and he had just gotten a camera from his sister, his sister’s boyfriend, who had given him a camera. And, uh, this is Louis was at the school and he had the camera, and again, he didn’t have a telephoto lens, so he had no choice but to just walk down the aisle, go right up to the front and take a picture. And I think everybody was shocked that he had that nerve. And he loved the kind of the good feeling that it came from, you know, from being able the camera gave him kind of a an entree, you know, to anywhere he wanted to go in the world.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:09:13] Richard now, he photographed over 60 years worth of work, Right. How did you decide on what to include in this book? Is this part one?
Richard Cahan [00:09:25] You know, I don’t think so. I’ll tell you why. Because the pictures that he took from the 1940s to 1968, they were really documenting the movement. They were documenting the dream. And it ended with, you know, the assassination of Martin Luther King. And obviously the movement continued. But times changed. His cameras changed. He moved on to a 35 millimeter camera and took mostly color film. So it’s a whole nother look at, you know, there’s there’s a beauty to this, you know, classic black and white photography. He really knew what he was doing. And and I think the pictures after that, not that they don’t have value, but they don’t have the drama. That’s why we really took the whole collection. And we said, what’s the most important message he had? And that message, I think, was kind of the beauty of resistance, the resilience that African-Americans had, you know, during these decades.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:10:21] How did you decide on the titles of the different chapters of photographs?
Richard Cahan [00:10:25] Oh, well, there there are nine chapters, and each chapter is a is a song title of, uh, usually a popular rhythm and blues song or blues song. And, and we just had made a list of civil rights songs, and they all seemed to fit, you know, these sections of the book.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:10:42] Talk to us about when Ernest really got his calling to become a photojournalist when he started working for The Chicago Defender.
Richard Cahan [00:10:50] Yea so, so he started Ernest Started is really just a commercial photographer. Right. He was there’s a great story that he used to go on Sunday mornings to Negro League baseball games at Martin Stadium, and he would take pictures instead of taking pictures of the the action, he would take pictures of the crowd because everybody got dressed up. This was like Easter every Sunday morning was like Easter. And and everyone looked really good. And he’d rush home to his studio. He’d process the film, he’d make prints. His wife would drive the prints in their oven. And then he rushed back to the ballpark before the game ended so that he could sell those prints. And that, you know, I think the key to him, to Ernest, was that he was willing to take on just about any assignment. So in the early 1950s, when when Negro newspapers were really an essential part of of the community, he was getting jobs with, you know, the Tri-State Defender, the Chicago Defender, other newspapers, where he was realizing that they didn’t have a white papers. Usually they relied on the Associated Press to send pictures. And he, in a sense, became his own press service. So he would take pictures of a basketball game or a graduation. And then he would you know, there were there were several dozen, you know, Negro newspapers in those days. And he would send them to all the newspapers, and that helped him make a living.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:12:13] When did he first photograph Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?
Richard Cahan [00:12:16] It was in 1950, uh, 1956. Mm hmm. It was one year after Rosa Parks refused to sit down and there was a yearlong boycott. And on the morning that they boycott in the morning that this case was settled and the boycott ended, he was on one of the first books, one of the first busses in Montgomery, and he was he literally waited for Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy to take a seat. About an hour or two later, as they rode the busses up front for the first time.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:12:46] How did he develop a kinship with with the movement and Dr. King?
Richard Cahan [00:12:50] You know, I think it was just that he was always there. Withers was often called the official photographer, Martin Luther King’s official photographer, and that really wasn’t true. They liked each other. But, you know, King didn’t have the money to really pay somebody. So it was really that that whenever King was in Memphis, whenever King was anywhere near Memphis, Withers was always there. He wasn’t the official photographer, but they were very close. Andrew Young, who I know you’ve had on your program many times, he talks a lot and in introduction about how important Withers work was in spreading the spreading the word. I guess it’s the visual word, you know what what it all looked like. And he was very appreciative.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:13:31] I know. That’s right. If you’re just joining us, I’m John L. Hanson Jr. and you’re listening to In Black America from KUT Radio. And we’re speaking with Richard Cahan, author of Revolution in Black and White Photographs of the Civil Rights Era by Ernest Withers. Richard, in looking at the photographs of Mr. Withers work, there seemed to be a distinction that I guess he developed over time to make his photographs of those well, that when and Withers photographs was taken, you know, it was the Withers photograph.
Richard Cahan [00:14:07] That is very true. People really, you know, talk a lot in Memphis about the kind of the honor of being photographed by Withers, whether it was by whether he was, in a sense, you know, came to their house when they were just photographed. And I think that that, you know, he he had a lot of self-confidence in himself. He always, you know, positioned himself right directly in front of his subjects. He certainly had the skill because he had done this for so many years, so many decades. And he made the scene, you know, he you know, an event wasn’t even an event unless interest Withers was there. So in a sense, people waited for him. There’s so many smiles in this book. They’re so pleased that he’s that they’re being photographed such a different time than today when, you know, you know, when you would when so many people are weary about being photographed, they don’t want to be photographed. You know.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:15:00] You’re right. Obviously, this was a dangerous job when he was out photographing the movement. How do you develop that tenaciousness?
Richard Cahan [00:15:08] Well, he likes to say that he learned a lot of it in World War Two is as a soldier. But he was very aware of it. He was roughed up a couple of times, once at the end of Medgar Evers funeral. The police just, you know, got his cameras threw him in almost like a cage. Him and a lot of other people. He was spit out a lot, he said. And, you know, he was he wasn’t a large man, but he he was he had played football in high school. He was a quarterback. So, you know, like all quarterbacks, he kind of knew where to move and he knew how to protect himself. And, you know, he he wasn’t too worried. But it took an awful lot of courage. You know, he really developed moves. Oftentimes, a white writer or journalist would come down to the south and Ernest Withers would be not only his chauffeur, but really his eyes and ears to get him through the south. And the same held true with Black for Black journalists who came down from Jet or Ebony and, you know, didn’t know the ways of the South. This is where he grew up. And he really understood a lot of the kind of the mores of of how to how to conduct yourself.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:16:15] I’m glad you mentioned that because I kind of skipped over. But you brought this full circle back to me when he first started taking photographs for the Black press. I’m trying to remember the newspaper he went to work for, and he was under that editor, a publisher’s tool, which for a while, right?
Richard Cahan [00:16:33] Right. Well, it was. You’re thinking of Alex. Uh, Alex. Alex. I’m thinking of Wilson. Uh.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:16:40] I think it was Wilson.
Richard Cahan [00:16:41] Yeah. Yeah. L Alex Wilson, right. People will know Alex Wilson because he was the very tall journalist who was punched and kicked around right at the Little Rock. And that was that. It was the night of that that was on TV that Eisenhower said he was going to send paratroopers out there. And Wilson was a big man and a really smart man. And you could tell how, you know, you know, he was just ganged up on. They they they kicked his you know, they they kicked him. They pushed his head off into the streets. And and Wilson, who was a former Marine.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:17:15] Refused to run. Exactly.
Richard Cahan [00:17:17] And and Withers was supposed to be there that day. And he just by assignment, he was in, uh, he was in Memphis and not in Little Rock. And he did a lot of photography of the of the Little Rock Nine. And Wilson was really the man. He was with them when King and Abernathy got on the bus in 1956. And Withers really respected him. They had a lot.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:17:38] About journalism from exactly their other pictorial books out there. What makes this particular book special?
Richard Cahan [00:17:45] You know, I think we use the photographs to set up history. I, I, I, I’m not a Southerner. And so a lot of this was new to me. And, and, and frankly, it was really eye opening. I and we we use photographs to tell the story of the integration of, say, the Memphis Public Library, the integration of the Memphis pools using first graders in 1961 to integrate Memphis public schools, which was pretty 13 first graders were used to to to break the color barrier. You know, you talk about the bravery of Jackie Robinson. Well, you can imagine the bravery of these first graders and their parents. Right. And and so it’s not so much a portfolio. When you open the book, you see about 250 photographs and you think it’s just going to be one of those big, beautiful portfolios. But there’s every picture let us on an adventure. And we really tracked down each picture and set it in context.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:18:45] Now, on the front and back inside, there is a picture of Andrew Young and then the first photograph of the book itself, there’s Andrew Young. Why those photographs?
Richard Cahan [00:18:56] Well, in it, Withers died in 2007, and in 2011, it was revealed that Withers was a paid FBI informant.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:19:04] Okay.
Richard Cahan [00:19:05] And in some ways, to some people like Dick Gregory, it made Withers a traitor. Mm hmm. But other people who knew Withers and who understood the times. It’s it’s it’s it’s much more nuanced. You know, he’s a it’s 1959. He’s a photographer in Memphis, and the FBI comes to him and says, we want pictures. How number one, how do you say no to the FBI? Right. Number two, it wasn’t clear. Yeah. At that time, a Hoover’s hatred of King and the movement was not clear in 1959. So it wasn’t like you were just switching sides. And Withers wrote in 2001 that the FBI had been following him for years. He didn’t say he was a paid informant. And he said he really tried to never get himself into, you know, controversial, secretive moments. And Andrew Young, who’s a big defender of Withers, said basically we had no secrets to hide. There was nothing to really divulge. And if Withers took photographs and told people where events were, it was okay with him.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:20:06] And you also write that Withers said that he may he made a habit of not being where decisions were being spoken about during his time with with the movement.
Richard Cahan [00:20:18] Exactly. He you know, Withers was a smart guy and he knew what he was doing. Now, that doesn’t take away the feelings that other people have had over the years that Withers, you know, betrayed them because they simply didn’t know what his dual role was. And I understand that on a personal level. But, you know, Withers, Withers you know, I don’t think his involvement with the FBI affects these pictures in the least and whether he should have been or shouldn’t have been. I don’t think we can really judge him because he’s not around to really stand up and defend himself. And, you know, it’s not as clear as it might seem at first.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:20:57] All right. You also talk about whether he had nine children.
Richard Cahan [00:21:02] Eight children.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:21:02] Eight children, and one was involved in an accident out in California. And Isaac Hayes did a benefit concert to bring them back to Memphis.
Richard Cahan [00:21:12] Exactly. And Isaac Hayes paid for.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:21:16] Tutor said he.
Richard Cahan [00:21:17] Taught me to write to head out to California and bring them back in on a special plane. You know, you I think people in Memphis understand this, but obviously, outside of Memphis, they have no idea how Withers was absolutely beloved, beloved by the entertainment community, beloved by the sports community. And and this is the guy that was. If you go on to, you know, Legacy.com and you read those comments afterwards, that’s how the book actually starts, that people write about somebody after they die. Oh, my gosh. He was just one you know, he was just always there. He was the guy that was, you know, photographing in the schools. And everyone, you know, really did love him and care about him. So it you know, there’s no question it was a shock when these revelations came out. But I think that if he was alive, he’d have a a good we would better understand what happened. You know, remember, Withers really also didn’t say no to the photo assignments. He was a photographer. This is what he did. You know, the school board wants the picture of the graduation. He says yes. You know, Jet magazine wants him to, you know, fly down or not fly down. But to drive down to Sumner, Mississippi, to photograph the Emmett Till trial in 1955. He said yes. And he ended up paying I think he got paid something like $75 for a week of work. But he just was somebody that wasn’t going to say no, because I think he loved it. He absolutely everybody he photographed, he knew he knew their uncle, their aunt, their family members. He was a really important part of this community in Memphis.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:22:48] Yeah. You also write about on the day that his dad died, he went to the funeral that day and did had an assignment later on that evening.
Richard Cahan [00:22:57] He did. He never he never shirked an assignment. His kids, who all love him and know him, but they also know that that their father’s first uh, I won’t say first love, but loyalty was work. Right. This is how, how their family survives.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:23:14] Now, we skipped the part that in early in his career, he did some little law enforcement.
Richard Cahan [00:23:19] Right. Right.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:23:20] And it was fired.
Richard Cahan [00:23:22] Yes. He was one of the he was one of Memphis’s first African-American patrol officers. And in those days, if you were Black, you could not arrest a white person. You could not carry a gun. And supposedly he was fired because he was bootlegging liquor. It’s hard to know, you know. You know, he says there was a jealous lieutenant. I have no idea. But, you know, he he. I’ll say this. I think that Withers was a hustler, but in the good sense of the word, he was trying to get ahead in life. And and that was just that’s that’s that’s one of the reasons why we have these photographs. The man who created a couple of million photographs because he never said no to an assignment.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:24:03] Also, you have pictures of Elvis Presley in there.
Richard Cahan [00:24:06] Yeah. Yeah. You know, Elvis Presley was certainly an important part of the Memphis music scene. And I think Elvis Presley made it pretty clear that he he learned a lot of his moves and a lot of his music from the African-American the Beale Street crowd. And he hung around. Oftentimes, there’s a picture of him at the Goodwill Revue, which was a radio station, his annual fundraising event in a 1956. Elvis was a big man in the white and African-American community. And there’s a picture of him just milling around with some young teenage, you know, performers. You can see them swooning for him. It’s funny. Elvis used to shop at a place called Lansky’s in Memphis, and the owner of it told Ernest that he should only photograph Elvis Presley, that that he would become a millionaire today if he had only photographed Elvis Presley. And I think he’s probably right. But who knew then? And I’m glad that Ernest Withers, you know, photographed other things because we probably have enough pictures of Elvis Presley.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:25:06] I know. That’s right. When you went back to Memphis to talk about Ernest, what was the reaction?
Richard Cahan [00:25:11] Oh, it was great. We had a book launch last month. And people were thrilled to finally see these pictures all put together in one place. I mentioned Ernest’s daughter, Roz. Right. She she still runs this museum. And you can see many of these pictures in the museum. But for all the people that can’t come down to the weather Collection museum, they have this chance to see, you know, a whole life devoted to photography. And and and it’s really and a lot of these pictures, Roz, and many other people have never seen before, because we got a chance to go back to the negatives and print these right from the negatives. So things that that Ernest himself probably had never seen before because he never made prints of a lot of it. You know, he was he was out getting another job.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:25:54] When you had an opportunity to to review some of the photos. Did you have an aha moment?
Richard Cahan [00:26:02] Oh, boy. I think I had a lot and you know, I had a lot of them. I thought the picture of that I mentioned of young Martin Luther King in 1956, sitting in the front seat with Ralph Abernathy is really an important photo. There’s another great photo of Moses Wright. Emmett Till’s great uncle. And he’s standing up in court. And I’ve read about this before. What a courageous move a Black man had never really accused, pointed at white people for a capital crime. And he stood up and he he points to the two men that were accused of the crime and Withers, who wasn’t supposed to take a picture, but he was he was in the front row holding his camera and he took a picture of of right standing up and, oh, my gosh, the this moment of bravery. And I’m so happy it was captured by somebody. And of course, it was Ernest Withers. He’s kind of like the Forest Gump, you know, no matter what happened, he was always there. And that’s that’s incredible.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:27:01] When looking at some of the photographs, I was particularly enamored with the one that had Dr. King arriving in Memphis.
Richard Cahan [00:27:09] Yeah.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:27:10] Just before. Well, it was it was the day before the assassination.
Richard Cahan [00:27:14] April 3rd, 1960, right? Yeah, It’s a it’s kind of a simple photo. But, you know, like everything else, when you look back at some photos, you you see it filled with kind of pathos. And interestingly, and this is kind of a a secret of the book, but that night, Martin Luther King gave the famous Mountaintop speech.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:27:36] Exactly.
Richard Cahan [00:27:36] And we looked for pictures and Ernest was not there.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:27:40] Richard Cahan, author of Revolution in Black and White Photographs of the Civil Rights Era, about Earnest Withers, published by City Files Press. If you have questions, comments or suggestions as your future In Black America programs, email us at In Black America at kut.org. Also, let us know what radio station you heard us over. Remember to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. The views and opinions expressed on this program and not necessarily those of the station or of the University of Texas at Austin. You can hear previous programs online at kut.org. Until we have the opportunity again for technical producer David Alvarez, I’m John L. Hanson Jr. Thank you for joining us today. Please join us again next week.
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