MEMPHIS, Tenn. – 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) in the exhibit “Black Resistance: Ernest C. Withers and the Civil Rights Movement” on display Feb. 3 to Aug. 19 at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
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.
In the 1950s, Withers began photographing pickets, sit-ins and courtroom scenes. Among his most famous images are those documenting the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The exhibition focuses on and commemorates the 50th anniversary of the events from March 27-April 8, 1968. A wall of sanitation workers carrying “I AM A MAN” placards and police in riot gear on March 28; Dr. King returning to Memphis on April 3; giving his historic "Mountaintop" speech at the Mason Temple; and the memorial march to City Hall on April 8 are among his images.
Featuring 19 photographs taken by Withers as well as a case of his personal memorabilia, including a camera and one of his familiar hats are 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.
The Brooks and the University of Memphis, Department of English are organizing “Seeing Civil Rights,” a symposium March 28-29 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. Seeing Civil Rights is 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.
“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. 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.
About the Brooks Museum of Art
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 www.brooksmuseum.org.
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