Beale Street is an assault to the senses. Wailing blues undulates in stereo, wiry teenage acrobats spring and curl down the cobblestone street, and five-gallon tip buckets are passed among the crowds. The air is thick and low with the signature sweetness of Memphis barbeque; anthropomorphic pigs grin greasily down at passersby, frozen concoctions and foamy beers spill over onto the pavement, and fizzled neon flashes overhead. It is a hot and itchy, rich and sticky, gritty, grindy celebration. It’s a carnival that never sleeps.
Such is thus, you could walk past the Withers Collection Museum a hundred times and never notice it. Inconspicuously tucked at the end of Beale between the neon swagger of Coyote Ugly and a dying head shop, you might mistake it for any of the dozens of empty storefronts that pockmark the street—if it weren’t for the man that stands outside. Utterly at odds with the grizzled hawkers that occupy othered darkened doorways of Beale, he stands buttoned and polished in a tailored suit, back straight and hands folded, waiting for someone to stop so that he might usher them inside for a chance to step behind the raucous curtain of the tourism industry, a chance to take a glimpse at the real Memphis inside.
Rough and rowdy Beale may seem an odd place for a museum, but The Withers Collection, much like its namesake, is made all the more interesting by the juxtaposition of its content and position. It all began with a brownie camera—an unlikely treat for a young boy in the 1920’s—brought courtesy of a cast-off gift of Ernest Withers’ sister’s boyfriend. The boy with the brownie soon grew into the soldier with the camera, then the husband and father who repurposed the bathtub and oven to develop freelance film.
Nothing was safe from Withers’ shutter; he not only had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, but he also occupied a unique position in the world of photography. As a native Memphian, he had been raised on the nuances of the prolific music scene; as one of the first nine black officers to join the Memphis Police force, he had inside access to events off-limits to the public; and as a black man, he could enter hotbeds of racial tension—rallies, marches, and meetings—that white photographers would send scattering. All of this, combined with his easy charm and candor, allowed Withers to document Memphis from a perspective of unrivaled intimacy. He repaid this privilege by maintaining the unbiased perspective of a photographer, allowing the contents of his photos—whether police brutality on the streets or his own police work in the morgue—to speak for themselves. Until, that is, they couldn’t.
In 1955, the news of the brutal murder of Emmett Till—a fourteen-year-old boy mutilated, lynched, and cast in the river for whistling at a white woman—reached Memphis. Like others, Withers was infuriated, but when he heard that the men accused of the crime had been acquitted, he knew that his duty was to raise his voice in challenge. Withers printed out photographs of the deceased Till, attached to them a manifesto for change, and called in every favor in his book to disseminate the pamphlet from one end of the country to the other.
Withers’ work catapulted the case into the national spotlight, raising a cry of outrage from coast to coast and garnering the attention of titans of the Civil Rights movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who approached Withers with three questions:
“How did you do that?”
“Can you do it again?”
“Will you meet me in Montgomery?”
Thus began Withers’ career as the unofficial photographer of the slow Southern move towards civil rights, taking photos not only on the frontlines, but within the frontlines: shots of the Montgomery bus boycotts from within the busses, rare glimpses of King in repose, rallies as viewed from behind the podium, and blood-stained concrete, still damp.
The size and scope of Ernest Withers’ work is all but impossible to imagine. When he passed, he left literal millions of photographs, stored in stacked and teetering towers of boxes, filing cabinets, repurposed envelopes and paper bags. Within these towers hides a treasure trove of over sixty years of Southern history: the candid grins of Negro League Baseball players like Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, Tina Turner in mid-gyrating-howl against the low-slung ceiling of Beale’s Club Paradise, and the stoic sea of men in the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike.
Slowly but surely, Rosalind Withers, Ernest’s youngest daughter, has begun the process of unfurling her father’s legacy, choosing not to ship the photos off to be sequestered in the air-tight and inaccessible vacuum of university archives, but on display on the same street—in the same office—from which her father once operated, giving Memphis back its history, one photo at a time.