Noted civil-rights photographer reflects on his work

Monday, February 23, 1998

Although he photographed Martin Luther King Jr. many times between the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1956 and the civil-rights leader’s last days in Memphis, Ernest Withers said he passed on what could have been his most famous picture:

The slain, nude body of King in the hospital just hours after his assassination on April 4, 1968.

“I had a love and respect for him, me being a photographer, that I didn’t take his picture,” Withers said. “Now, if I was a paparazzi… .”

King appears in many of the 60 black-and-white photographs in the 75-year-old photographer’s new book, Let Us March On! But images of unnamed African Americans marching in Montgomery and Memphis and building tent cities in Mississippi and Tennessee dominated Withers’ exhibition Friday at the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn.

John Seigenthaler, the center’s founder and a former U.S. Justice Department official during the civil-rights movement, said the nation was lucky to have such a turbulent period covered in “unique style by one of our most talented photographers.”

Withers brushed aside such compliments saying he was merely a photographer paid to do a job. Although his work often appeared in Life, Newsweek and Time, Withers said his job was to take pictures for about 10 black newspapers based in cities such as Cleveland and Chicago.

“I live with the philosophy to be what you is not you what you ain’t. Because if you ain’t what you is then you is what you ain’t,” he said. “I’m not a teacher. I’m a photographer.”

Withers told an audience of about 100 that his career in photography came after military service and a brief stint as a Memphis police officer. And even then, his photography was a job and not a well-paid one, he added.

For his first big assignment—covering the murder trial of two white men charged in the 1955 killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till—Withers said he received only $35 for 12 days of work. He said he now thinks that getting paid so little gave his work a different point of view from other photographers.

Withers said, too, that unnamed people often filled his photos because he wasn’t allowed the same access as white photographers.

But Withers said his job kept him near King and other key civil-rights leaders. He said he remembers that while King was a dynamic speaker and leader, he didn’t always lead a march or protest. “Many times, he was just a presence to offer the ‘flame of togetherness,’” Withers said.

Asked about what he wants to do now, Withers joked “Well, I want to get rich.”

“But it’s not all about me, it’s about us,” he said. “I hope my work will benefit more people than it has up to this point.”