Tucked into a room off the main gallery of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art rest historical gems: 10 black-and-white photographs documenting dramatic moments in the civil rights movement.
The images are a portfolio of work by photojournalist Ernest Withers. Withers was born in 1922 in Memphis and spent most of his life there. Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, curator of prints and drawing at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, said Withers spent most of his time photographing events in Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas, largely during the civil rights era. The portfolio of his work is from throughout his career.
“Many people don't know the name Ernest Withers, but when you see his photographs he captured very iconic images of landmark moments during the civil rights movement,” Yanari-Rizzo said.
Yanari-Rizzo said Withers probably first met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Montgomery bus boycott, when he photographed King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy riding together on the first desegregated bus. The boycott was started after Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, refused to give up her seat in the black section to a white person. Her refusal grew into a boycott. Finally, the court ordered an end to segregation on the buses.
Another image shows King confronted by two police officers at murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers' funeral. Yanari-Rizzo said Withers is known for moving right in on the action and this photograph is literally looking over the shoulders of the police officers who are confronting King.
According to a 2010 story broken by the Commercial Appeal, a two-year investigation showed Withers had collaborated with the FBI in the late 1960s, giving them information about the civil rights movement. The story said Withers had provided photographs and details to two FBI agents between 1968 and 1970. The newspaper had acquired its information through reports obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and posted it on its website.
“I think for us we just have to look at his photography and the power of his work. He was greatly involved with some of the protests, he was beaten up, he risked his life documenting some of these events, he was very much a supporter,” Yanari-Rizzo said.
Yanari-Rizzo added she personally doubts he would have done anything to endanger the lives of those involved in the movement.
The 10 images include a picture of the Little Rock Nine, the first African-American students to attend a formerly all-white high school. Their nervousness is reflected in an image of one of the girls dropping her books as she gets out of the car. Another image in the collection shows a family who lived in a tent. After using their right to vote, they had been evicted by their white landlord.
If the prints are not on display they can still be viewed by making an appointment with Yanari-Rizzo in the Print and Drawing study center.