The Civil Rights Movement and Memphis Music Captured Through the Lens of Ernest Withers

MLK Room at National Civil Rights Museum

Dr Martin Luther King Jr's room at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Photo by Brand USA

Withers Collection Museum & Gallery. Photo Credit: Justin Fox Burks

Ernest Withers Collection Museum and Gallery is located on Beale Street in Memphis.

Withers Collection Museum & Gallery. Photo Credit: Justin Fox Burks

Withers Collection Museum Gallery is located on Beale Street in Downtown Memphis. Photo by Justin Fox Burks.

bb kings

Beale Street - b/w with B.B. King sign

The cozy Withers Collection Museum & Gallery, located in Wither’s former studio space, offers visitors a snapshot into six decades of American history captured through the lens of renowned photographer Dr. Ernest C. Withers. You may not recognize the name off hand, but you’ve undoubtedly seen his work displayed at the Library of Congress and incorporated into the permanent collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.  

Trained at the Army School of Photography, Withers captured both the good and bad side of segregation in the South. In 1955, his images of Emmett Till and the murder trial that followed brought much attention and helped document the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Withers traveled with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., photographed the Little Rock Nine, the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in 1956 and the sanitation workers strike in Memphis. Not many know that Withers deeply loved music and baseball. Through the gallery you’ll see a series of Negro League Baseball portraits, photos from the soul and R&B music era in Memphis and of course, Beale Street legend, B.B. King

Today, his daughter, Rosalind manages and procures one of the largest photo collections amassed by a single individual (it is estimated that Ernest took over 1 million photos in his 60 years). She is responsible for daily operations of the Withers photographic Art Museum and Gallery.

The Withers Collection Museum & Gallery is located at 333 Beale Street next to the Old Daisy Theater and near 4th Street. The gallery is open Wednesday through Sunday starting at 4 p.m. Daytime tours are available for larger groups by reservation and admission is $10 for adults and $7 for children. Plan to spend approximately 1 hour to 90 minutes exploring the photographer’s life and images on display. 

After browsing the Withers Collection, pull up a chair at Dorthy Mae's Cafe. The cafe is a tribute to Ernest's wife, Dorthy Mae, who often entertained and fed the guests her husband brought home. The cafe includes a light menu of soups, coffee and salads along with sweet and savory desserts (the Beale Street cupcake is a taste of barbecue smoked for 16 hours).

For more information about the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery, see their official website or watch the video below.