Few people can say that they’ve seen as much as photojournalist Ernest Withers.
He rode with Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Ala. He watched Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays play at the ballpark. He attended early performances of many celebrities, including Elvis Presley, B.B. King and Aretha Franklin.
And he captured it all on film.
This year, Withers is one of six individuals and one publication chosen to receive the 2004 Missouri Honor Medal from the Missouri School of Journalism. Withers will visit the school this week to receive his award and present a master class to photojournalism students.
Withers said he felt honored to receive the award. “I feel very majestic, very good,” he said.
Recipients of the Missouri Honor Medal are selected by the school’s faculty based on lifetime achievement. Withers was chosen “in recognition of his more than six decades of using photography to mobilize citizens to push for equal rights for people of all races, of recording the spirit and emotion of key historical events and of his making a positive difference in the lives of all Americans,” according to the Journalism School’s Web site.
Withers said his parents taught him many lessons about being a good photographer. His mother, a seamstress, sent him to the dry goods store to buy thread to match the fabric she was using. If Withers didn’t choose the right shade of thread, she sent him back until he found the correct match.
“It taught me to make a quick observance and to match imagery,” Withers said.
Withers learned about honesty from his father.
“Can people rely on your honesty?” Withers said. “That is what is required of a decent photographer, and I tried to do what was required of me.”
Withers also attributes his success to his wife and family, who supported him throughout his career. He maintains a studio in his hometown, Memphis, Tenn.