The little-known story of an iconic photographer, whose work captured—and influenced—a critical moment in American history.
Who was Ernest Withers? Most Americans may not know the name, but they do know his photographs. Withers took some of the most legendary images of the 1950s and ’60s: Martin Luther King, Jr., riding a newly integrated bus in Montgomery, Alabama; Emmett Till’s uncle pointing an accusatory finger across the courtroom at one of his nephew’s killers; scores of African-American protestors, carrying a forest of signs reading "I am a man." But while he enjoyed unparalleled access to the inner workings of the civil rights movement, Withers was working as an informant for the FBI.
In this gripping narrative history, Preston Lauterbach examines the complicated political and economic forces that informed Withers’s seeming betrayal of the people he photographed. Withers traversed disparate worlds, from Black Power meetings to raucous Memphis nightclubs where Elvis brushed shoulders with B.B. King. He had a gift for capturing both dramatic historic moments and intimate emotional ones, and it may have been this attention to nuance that made Withers both a brilliant photographer and an essential asset to the FBI. Written with similar nuance, Bluff City culminates with a riveting account of the 1968 riot that ended in violence just a few days before Dr. King’s death.
Brimming with new information and featuring previously unpublished and rare photographs from the Withers archive not seen in over fifty years, Bluff City grapples with the legacy of a man whose actions—and artistry—make him an enigmatic and fascinating American figure.
Lauterbach (Beale Street Dynasty) illuminates the life of African-American photojournalist Ernest Withers (1922 2007), beginning with his childhood in the racially divided city of Memphis. Withers joined the Army after high school, where he honed his photography skills; afterward, he returned to Memphis and as a freelancer covered sports events, funerals, and politics for local papers. Withers shot some of his most memorable photos there, including shots of Elvis Presley laughing with B.B. King at an all-black function, and of Martin Luther King Jr. leading Memphis sanitation workers in a strike demonstration just a week before he was killed. Realizing that he couldn't support his growing family solely as a photographer, Withers became an informant for the FBI and reported on the activities of various organizations, including the Invaders, an emerging Black Power group, and people, including Martin Luther King Jr. Lauterbach points out that in Withers's community, "black leaders had long informed white leaders about African-American political activity" (church leaders might speak with, for example, elected town officials), and that Withers didn't equate being a black photojournalist in a black world with promoting racial justice. His easy access, at least tacitly as a participant, enabled him to document the activities of these groups and to pass along pictures of them to the FBI in the late 1960s. Lauterbach tells a fantastic story of a brilliant and compromised artist living in challenging and divisive times.