Ernest Withers work has been archived by the Library of Congress and has been slated for the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution's in-progress National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Ernest C. Withers was born in Memphis, Tennessee, to Arthur Withers and Pearl Withers of Marshall County, Mississippi; he had a step-mother known as Mrs. Minnie Withers. Ba Ba [Father] Withers exhibited interest in photography from a young age. He took his first photograph in high school after his sister gave him a camera she received from a classmate. He met his wife Dorothy Curry of Brownsville, Tennessee (they remained married for 66 years), at Manassas High School in Memphis, Tennessee.
During World War II he received training at the Army School of Photography. After the war, Withers served as one of Memphis' first African-American police officers.
Dr. Withers and his wife Dorothy had eight children together (seven boys and one girl, Rosalind Withers). He also had a second daughter from Memphis, Tennessee named Frances Williams. All of his sons accompanied him as apprentice photographers at different points in his career, including Ernest, Jr., Perry O., Clarence (Joshua), E., Wendell J., Dedrick (Teddy) J., Dyral L., and Andrew (Rome). His business was called Withers Photography Studio.
Dr. Withers enjoyed traveling, visiting family members and entertaining guest at his home including Brock Peters, Jim Kelly, Eartha Kitt, Alex Haley, Ivan van Sertima, Stokley Carmichael (Kwame Ture), and many others in the entertainment world and black consciousness movement. He attended Gospel Temple Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He was also an all-round (high-school to professional) sports enthusiast.
Withers was active for approximately 60 years, with his most noted work being the images captured of the Civil Rights Movement.
He traveled with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his public life. Withers' coverage of the Emmett Till murder trial brought national attention to the racial violence taking place during the 1950s in Mississippi, among other places. Withers appeared in a TV documentary about the murdered 14-year-old entitled The American Experience: The Murder of Emmett Till.
Withers served as official photographer for Stax Records for 20 years.
Between 1 million and 5 million images are estimated to have been taken during Withers' career, with current efforts in progress for preservation and digitization.
In 2007 Dr. Withers died from the complications of a stroke in his hometown of Memphis.
In 2013, the FBI released documents relating to Ernest Withers in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by a Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal.
The documents begin in 1946 with the FBI investigating Withers as a possible communist, as he was a member of the United Negro Allied Veterans of America (UNAVA) after serving in World War II, and the group was thought to have communist ties. In a document dated 1948, an FBI informant who served in the military with Withers reported that he knew Withers to have "highly reliable and excellent character, particularly with reference to loyalty and patriotism to the United States", in response to the suspicion of communism.
Document 44-3, dated March 1960, contains the report of an informant who discovered information regarding library sit-ins from The Commercial Appeal newspapers, as well as hearing about them from Withers.
A document dated February 2, 1961 is an investigation of Withers wherein Memphis Police Department Chief, James C. MacDonald gives information relating to Withers service as a policeman. Macdonald states that Withers was one of the "first negro officers ever hired by the Memphis PD", but that he was fired after 3 years. The document concludes with a recommendation that Withers be contacted to become an informant regarding general criminal matters. The recommendation states that Withers activities "will not be directed in any manner with regard to racial matters or security matters".
The FBI documents contain the details of Withers' beating and incarceration in Jackson, Mississippi following a civil rights demonstration in which he took part.
A 1968 document contains the first reference to an informant, ME 338-R(Ghetto), widely believed to be a reference to Withers and inferred by the FBI's responses to FOIA court actions. ME 338-R(Ghetto) provided a variety of general information including pictures and brief descriptions of meetings and events. There is limited specific information, commonly relating to a militant group named the Invaders. ME 338-R(Ghetto) recorded the violence and connections of the Invaders including a leaflet on the manufacturing of firebombs, and links to prostitution.
ME 338-R(Ghetto) was an informant for 2 years, 1968 through the final report in 1970, with 19 reports that include some reference to the informant. A total of 10 pictures were provided by the informant in the released documents.
Ernest Withers died years before the FOIA request was made, thus no direct response was possible. However, at the 2000 Withers exhibition at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, Withers said he had FBI agents regularly looking over his shoulder and questioning him, "I never tried to learn any high powered secrets,” Withers said. “It would have just been trouble.…[The FBI] was pampering me to catch whatever leaks I dropped, so I stayed out of meetings where decisions were being made.”
Civil rights leader Andrew Young commented after the release of the FBI file, "The movement was transparent and didn't have anything to hide anyway".
The Ernest Withers Museum and Collection was opened in Memphis, Tennessee on Beale Street in May 2011. The Museum features images of Ernest Withers spanning the eras of his work, while the complete archive is held in an offsite location. The Withers Museum and Collection is approximately 7,000 square feet.Worley, William (1998). Beale Street: Crossroads of America's Music. Addax Pub Group Inc. ISBN 1-886110-18-2.
Withers, Ernest (2000). Pictures Tell the Story : Ernest C. Withers Reflections in History. Chrysler Museum of Art. ISBN 0-940744-68-6.
Withers, Ernest (2001). The Memphis Blues Again: Six Decades of Memphis Music Photographs. Studio. ISBN 0-670-03031-7.
Withers, Ernest (2005). Negro League Baseball. Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 0-8109-5585-7.