Iconic civil rights images by famed photojournalist Ernest Withers travel from Memphis to Boulder
Jan. 12—Photojournalist Ernest C. Withers captured the beauty, joy, sorrow and rawness of the African American experience on photographic film.
His prolific work spans from the 1940s to the 2000s, before his death in 2007.
From snapping candid shots of iconic entertainers Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and B.B. King to capturing history with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — with whom he spent much time with — his images offer an intimate and telling glimpse into Black culture of yesteryear.
As part of the Boulder County NAACP's "Walk With Me" series — a six-week-long celebration kicking off on MLK weekend and stretching into February's Black History Month — over 100 images by Withers will be on display at the Dairy Arts Center from Sunday through Feb. 27.
"It's a super big deal and it's super exciting," said NAACP Boulder County President Annett James, who took a trip to Memphis with fellow members to explore the poignant work of the award-winning lensman. "When we came back, we were 100 percent committed to making it happen."
Anchored by the moving photography exhibit — that includes some never-before-seen shots from the 1950s and '60s — the entire series that will feature poetry, live music and dance performances is completely free, although donations are welcome.
"While we work in the political arena around equality, we always try to thank our community and share in a celebratory way," James said. "We always want to do things that are inspirational, educational and that build community."
For James, the exhibit — showcasing life across the American South decades ago — brings to mind a quote by Desmond Tutu: "My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together."
"History belongs to all of us," James said. "We want to give people an opportunity to take a moment and analyze from all kinds of perspectives. I want people to see themselves in this work. I want white people to see themselves in this work."
James, who grew up in Mississippi, is particularly fond of images by Withers featuring Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist who worked as Mississippi's field secretary for the NAACP.
"(Evers's) work is such a true reflection of the rural movement of equality," James said. "He was working with people that didn't have access to a lot of information."
Withers's images of musician Ray Charles and those of Negro League baseball players are among favorites of James.
"He was such a unique photographer," James said.
From protest marches to blues clubs, Withers went everywhere with his camera, artfully documenting the tribulations and triumphs of the Black community.
"The photographs — in black and white — have value as documentation of the critical struggle to attain voting and human rights and also serve to remind us how relevant this struggle is to current events," said Jude Landsman, chair of the NAACP Freedom Fund. "'Pictures tell the story,' motto of Ernest Withers, says it all. This exhibit is powerful and meaningful and validating."
In 1955, Ernest Withers was the only photographer to document the entire Emmett Till murder trial.
in 1968, Withers captured the Memphis sanitation workers' strike, where workers stood shoulder to shoulder, clutching signs that read, "I Am A Man."
Rosalind Withers, daughter of Ernest Withers, will be a keynote speaker and will participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Dairy Arts Center at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, marking the official opening of the Dairy's photography exhibit.
Withers runs The Withers Collection Museum and Gallery in Memphis, located on the iconic Beale Street, and has brought images from her father's collection to venues in Norway, France and Germany, among other locales.
She recalls many famous faces making visits to her family's Memphis, Tenn., home. From dining with the entire cast of "Roots" to breaking bread with singer and actress Eartha Kitt, her memories of growing up with a notable photojournalist father are truly exceptional.
It is documented that Ernest Withers may have taken an estimated 5 million photographs throughout his career.
"We are always finding new discoveries, because we are digitizing his work," Withers said.
Among the new images are some from the days of segregation at Overton Park, in Memphis, when Black and white people weren't permitted to visit the park's attractions at the same time. Black people were given only one day a week to enjoy the zoo.
A sign displaying "No White People Allowed in Zoo Today" can be seen in images taken by Withers. In one, a Black woman is sitting on the sign.
"That's sure to capture your attention," Withers said. "It literally walked up and slapped me in the face. It's one of the things that helped me put in perspective the importance of the work."
The images at the Dairy Arts Center are sure to coax out a variety of emotions.
"NAACP has made a beautiful selection that will really tell a story," Withers said. "The categories are really strong and in-depth. I applaud Annett (James) for taking that leap. She's done a remarkable job of showing history through the lens of Ernest C. Withers."
After Sunday's opening reception for the photography exhibit, folks can look forward to a wealth of events.
Monday, at Silver Creek High School in Longmont, Rodney K. Strong — attorney and civil rights activist in Atlanta — will give a speech and choreographers and dancers Nyasha Davis and Constance Harris will perform.
As part of "Walk With Me," the Dairy Arts Center will also host a variety of events on three consecutive Saturdays: Jan. 29, Feb. 12 and Feb. 19 from 3-6 p.m. Local dancers, poets and musicians, including Denver harpist and violinist Annastezhaa M., will entertain as docents lead tours.
These upcoming Dairy "Black Experiences in Art" events are put on by the Executive Committee for African American Cultural Events, with Longmont's Madelyn Strong Woodley as director. Woodley is also the main contact that helped to bring the photography of Withers to the region.
"The pandemic caused both our 2020 and 2021 Freedom Fund events to be rescheduled," Landsman said. "Consequently, we have an abundance of cultural riches presented by Freedom Fund in Boulder County in 2022."
The engaging series concludes with a performance by Fisk Jubilee Singers at 2 p.m. Feb. 27 at Macky Auditorium on the University of Colorado Boulder campus — a show that has been rescheduled four times since 2019.
This concert is free, but attendees are encouraged to register prior to the show online. Like at all "Walk With Me" events, proof of vaccination and wearing a face mask is required.
Organizers are enthused to finally welcome the Grammy Award-winning a cappella group to the stage. But first, visitors to the Dairy Arts Center can dive into this vast collection of iconic images that provide a far-reaching and layered look into the past.
"Sharing the work is what makes it worth it all," Withers said. "There is such a void in African American history. We are told there is no African American history, but here we stand with history that exists."