By Wiley Henry
MEMPHIS, TN – One of this country’s preeminent civil rights photographers is receiving widespread attention from Hollywood notables 15 years after his death this month in 2007.
Rosalind Withers, daughter of Ernest C. Withers Sr. and director and conservator of The Withers Collection Museum and Gallery in Memphis, said her father’s work is reaching a global audience.
In partnership with Orion Pictures (an MGM company) and United Artists Releasing, some of Withers’ iconic photographs are being exhibited with others in tandem with the Till movie.
“We (The Withers Collection) worked with the premiere release of the film,” said Rosalind Withers, who met the president of Orion Pictures, Alana Mayo, at a prior Withers exhibit.
According to Rosalind Withers, Mayo said, “We need to do something together on this film (Till) … and somehow incorporate the Withers collection into this film.”
The movie premiered at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills on Oct. 8 to much fanfare and debuted in New York and Chicago as well. Till also premiered in London on Oct. 15.
Rosalind Withers attended the Beverly Hills screening of Till and the exhibit entitled “Till: Impact of Images,” featuring African American photographers and journalists from the Black press corps who captured that dark and turbulent era in American history.
“It was amazing. It was probably one of the greatest functions I’ve attended in a long time,” Rosalind Withers said. “It was LA.’s first time seeing the film.”
Withers, L. Alex Wilson, Clotye Murdock, Simeon Booker and others who risked their lives for the story were described on the website for “Till: Impact of Images” as “soldiers without swords.”
Their stories and images, cobbled together at times under dire circumstances, exposed humanity at its worst when Black lives were imperiled and relegated to a harsh reality during the Jim Crow South.
The “Till: Impact of Images” collection is organized by K Period Media Foundation and Lead With Love, with support from Orion Pictures, United Artists Releasing, and the Till movie.
Personal photographs from the families of Emmett Louis Till and Mamie Till-Mobley and Medgar and Myrlie Evers are part of the “Till: Impact of Images” collection as well.
The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, The Medgar & Myrlie Evers Institute, and The Withers Collection are cited for their continued fight for equality and battle for civil rights.
Ernest Withers’ “I Am a Man” photo of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN. Photos courtesy of the Withers Family Trust Credit
The Withers Collection also collaborated on a commemorative art piece for attendees at the Till movie premiers in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and provided them with a keepsake ticket stub honoring the aforementioned organizations.
The movie is based on Till-Mobley’s courageous and relentless fight for justice after her 14-year-old son was brutally lynched in 1955. Till opened in select theatres on Oct. 14 and will open nationwide on Oct. 28.
It was directed and co-written by Chinonye Chukwu and produced by Whoopi Goldberg, Frederick M. Zollo, Thomas Levine, Keith Beauchamp, Michael Reilly, and Barbara Broccoli.
It has been 67 years since Emmett Till’s life was snuffed out by white men for whistling at a white woman in Money, Miss. His gruesome death is not the crux of this Till movie.
After the lynching of Emmett Till and all the hullabaloo over his death, Withers went to Sumner, Miss., and risked his life to photograph the trial of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, who were acquitted of killing the Chicago lad.
“One of the things that we showed in our exhibition was my father’s image of Mose Wright pointing (at Milam and Bryant when he testified at their trial),” Rosalind Withers said. “He was the only person who took that picture.”
Withers published a pamphlet of photographs from the trial and marketed them as the “Complete Photo Story of Till Murder Case.” The cost: $1.00. The pamphlet is now part of the Smithsonian collection, Rosalind Withers said.
She has one other copy in her possession and declared it to be “extremely valuable.” A descendant of President Thomas Jefferson gifted it to her, she said.
“It shows you how far-reaching Dad’s work [has] impacted our history.”