Brooks Museum focuses on photography of Ernest C. Withers and the Civil Rights Movement

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MEMPHIS:  Visitors to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art will soon experience some of the defining moments in civil rights history in Memphis—the sanitations workers’ strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—through the iconic photographs of Ernest C. Withers (1922 – 2007).

Martin Luther King at Mason Temple, April 1968. Photo by Ernest C. Withers (1922 – 2007)

 It was during America’s pro-segregation climate that Withers began to document Black resistance to injustice and inequality and African Americans’ quest for citizenship rights and dignity. Despite challenges to educational opportunities and upward mobility, the Black citizenry of Memphis comprised many notable leaders in the arenas of law, education, politics, church leadership, and social justice activism.

“The Brooks is honored to participate in the city-wide observance of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by exhibiting the iconic photographs that captured the sanitation strike that brought Dr. King to Memphis,” said Emily Ballew Neff, Brooks Executive Director.

Opening February 3 and on view into August, Withers’ powerful photographs will be on view in Black Resistance: Ernest C. Withers and the Civil Rights Movement.

In the 1950s, Withers began photographing Black resistance in Memphis—from pickets and sit-ins to courtroom scenes. Among his most famous images are those documenting the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

 Although earlier protests are included, this exhibition focuses on and commemorates the 50th anniversary of the events from March 27 through April 8, 1968.  A wall of sanitation workers carrying “I AM A MAN” placards and police in riot gear on the 28th; Dr. King returning to Memphis on the 3rd; giving his historic “Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple; and the memorial march to City Hall on the 8th are among his evocative, iconic images.

“While Withers’ subjects are rightly the first thing mentioned in any discussions of his work, he was a master of composition,” explained Marina Pacini, Brooks Chief Curator. “It wasn’t just that he knew which events were important, it is how he chose to frame them that make his images so compelling. The selection of photographs in this exhibition demonstrates how he captured with simple grace and dramatic power both the personalities of his subjects and the importance of the historical moment.”

This exhibition, organized by the Brooks, features 19 photographs taken by Withers as well as a case of his personal memorabilia, including a camera and one of his familiar hats on loan from the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery. Withers was born and raised in Memphis. He started taking pictures in high school, received photographic training while in the army during World War II, returned to Memphis and set up several studios before establishing himself on Beale Street.

Black Resistance: Ernest C. Withers and the Civil Rights Movement opens at the Brooks on Saturday, February 3 and will be on view through Sunday, August 19. The Brooks has partnered with several organizations to organize numerous related events. The full listing of events can be found at brooksmuseum.org.

During the member opening on Friday, February 2, a panel discussion will take place that will be introduced by Rosalind Withers—President and Board Chairman of the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery and the only daughter of Dorothy and Ernest Withers. The panel discussion, hosted in partnership with The Collective (The CLTV), will recount for museum members stories from individuals who heroically participated in strikes and sit-ins, along with their children and grandchildren, who will tell their own stories of resistance.

In March, the Brooks and the University of Memphis Department of English are organizing Seeing Civil Rights—a symposium that explores how Withers and his contemporaries imagined photography’s dual role as an art form and a tool for political change. It brings together esteemed and provocative scholars, writers, and artists to address how photographs shaped the immediate reception of the Civil Rights Movement, and their continuing impact on how we remember these influential events. Authors Dr. Deborah Willis and Teju Cole are opening and closing the symposium, speaking on Wednesday, March 28 and Thursday, March 29 respectively. Seeing Civil Rightsis sponsored by George A. Riley Memorial Fund, the University of Memphis Department of English, University of Memphis Department of History, and the Marcus Orr Center for the Humanities.

Sanitation workers strike, March 1968. Ernest C. Withers (1922 – 2007)

Black Resistance: Ernest C. Withers and the Civil Rights Movement is co-curated by Brooks Chief Curator Marina Pacini and Barbara Andrews, former curator, National Civil Rights Museum. Ms. Andrews also recorded the audio tour that accompanies the exhibition. Black Resistance: Ernest C. Withers and the Civil Rights Movement is sponsored by “Remembering George Riley at MLK 50,” Diversified Trust, and Montgomery Martin.

Withers’ photographs had, and continue to have, a lasting impact beyond the city of Memphis. They retain their power to this day, crystalizing the tenacity and bravery of African American resistance to injustice. After a half century, it is clear that his images are not only a part of the nation’s visual memory, but also of the entire world.

About the Brooks:

Founded in 1916 and located at 1934 Poplar Ave. in historic Overton Park, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is home to Tennessee’s oldest and largest major collection of world art.  More than 10,000 works make up the Brooks Museum’s permanent collection, including works from ancient Greece, Rome and the Americas; Renaissance masterpieces from Italy; English portraiture; American painting and decorative arts; contemporary art; and a survey of African art. The Brooks Museum enriches the lives of our diverse community through the museum’s expanding collection, varied exhibitions, and dynamic programs that reflect the art of world cultures from antiquity to the present. For more information about the Brooks and all other exhibitions and programs, call 901.544.6200 or visit brooksmuseum.org.

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About Author

Christine Anne Piesyk has been a journalist for more than 50 years. Her credits include positions as Editor in Chief, Managing Editor, Staff Writer specializing in education, leisure living, food and arts and entertainment. She was co-producer, writer and on air persona for the Entertainment Review for 25 years. Now "retired," she finds herself working on online websites and as a book editor. In her other life, she is a costume designer in her daughter's company, Gemini Dream Designs.

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