Oh Freedom! Ernest C. Withers

Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights Through American Art
The photo to the left shows a woman with her voter registration card and the photo to the right shows a family that lives in a tent.

Left: Ernest C. Withers (1922–2007), Young woman receives her voter registration card, Fayette County, TN, 1960, 1960, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 in., © Ernest C. Withers Trust, Memphis, TN, Collection of National Museum of African American History and Culture, Museum purchase, TR2009-35.5

Right: Ernest C. Withers (1922–2007), "Tent City" family, Fayette County, TN, 1960, 1960, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 in., © Ernest C. Withers Trust, Memphis, TN, Collection of National Museum of African American History and Culture, Museum purchase, TR2009-35.4

Right: Ernest C. Withers (1922–2007), "Tent City" family, Fayette County, TN, 1960, 1960, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 in., © Ernest C. Withers Trust, Memphis, TN, Collection of National Museum of African American History and Culture, Museum purchase, TR2009-35.4

Student Questions

1. Look at the photograph and its title on the left. What is the young woman’s reaction to receiving her voter registration card? How does the setting reflect her mood? 

2. Look at the picture on the right and read its title. How is this image similar to other family photos you have seen? How is it different?

3. What do these two photographs have in common? What is different about them?

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About These Artworks

This pair of photographs vividly documents the highs and the lows in the long fight for African American voting rights in rural West Tennessee that culminated in 1960. In one picture, a young woman beams, her delight unmistakable, as she proudly displays her new voting registration card. The woman beside her smiles with some reservation. On this bright, warm day, as the sun flickers through the trees and sunlight and shadow play across the women’s faces, Withers captures the complex mood of exhilaration tempered by weariness, maybe even worry or impatience artfully disguised. The other photograph stands in stark contrast. A family poses in a line, as if for a formal family portrait, but outside a tent amid a barren landscape. Several young children, bundled against the cold, address the photographer warily. Their clothes are worn, in some cases too small to button properly, suggesting the hardship of their situation. Yet the two adults standing along with them express two strategies that might lead the family through their experience: the father, with a hint of a smile, suggests perseverance and optimism; the mother, with her stern look at the camera, suggests fortitude and determination.

While the moods of the two photographs are different, their subjects are closely related. In 1959, two groups of black citizens filed organizational charters for the Fayette County Civic and Welfare League and the Haywood County Civic and Welfare League. The Fayette County organization aimed to coordinate the first comprehensive voter registration drive among black citizens in the rural South. Trying to prevent African Americans from voting, members of the Fayette County Election Commission resigned, but the U.S. Justice Department named new commissioners to replace them. Hundreds of African American county residents, mostly sharecroppers, were forced to stand in line outdoors in blazing heat to wait for a single registrar to process all the applications. Eventually many received their voter registration cards. This triumph is the subject of the first image.

Some white residents retaliated, evicting black families from their homes on white-owned farms. After black residents voted in November, white landowners stepped up their efforts to throw black sharecroppers off the land, and white merchants refused to sell them the food and goods they needed. Hundreds of desperate families took refuge in tent camps. The second photograph was taken in the first and most famous camp, “Tent City,” which was set up on land in Fayette County owned by a white farmer, Shephard Towles. The standoff in Fayette County received national attention, but it was not resolved until early 1962, when a federal court forbade anyone from interfering with someone’s right to vote. Unlike the famous protests in Mississippi, Alabama, and even nearby Memphis, the struggles in Fayette County and Haywood County are remarkable because they were borne mostly by local citizens without the direct assistance of national civil rights leaders or organizations. By picturing these everyday citizens, Withers’s photographs speak to the dedication, trials, and triumphs of those who stood up for their right to vote.

About This Artist

Ernest C. Withers (born Memphis, TN 1922–died Memphis, TN 2007)

For fifty years, Earnest Withers worked as a photographer, primarily in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee—an important city in civil rights history. His business card explained his philosophy: “The Pictures Tell the Story.” Withers attended the Army School of Photography during his service in World War II and used those skills when he returned home to Memphis. There he earned his reputation for capturing life in the segregated South. Withers created a series portraying the city’s music scene, including images of famous singers, such as Elvis Presley, B. B. King, Aretha Franklin, and Ike and Tina Turner. However, Withers is best known for photographing important moments in the Civil Rights movement and for his own activism. For example, he self-published a pamphlet, illustrated with his own photos, about Emmett Till’s murder and trial. Present in Martin Luther King Jr.’s hotel room the night he was shot, the photographer documented events and places related to the assassination, including the bathroom from which James Earl Ray shot King. In 2010, Withers’s reputation as the foremost civil rights chronicler sustained a blow when the New York Times reported that, from about 1968 to 1970, Withers gave the F.B.I. information about civil rights activists.


Related Material

Two posters encouraging people to vote

Youth vote posters, mid-1960s. National Museum of American History, Behring Center

Organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Congress of Racial Equality used dramatic photographs and bold graphic designs, like those seen in these youth voting posters, to encourage voter registration, a quintessential civil right. Their efforts helped encourage twenty-five thousand people to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 to protest the illegal barriers many African Americans encountered when they tried to register to vote.

A jean jacket with pins

Denim jacket worn by Joan Trumpauer Mulholland with twenty-three political activist buttons, 1960s. National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from the Trumpauer-Mulholland Collection

Joan Trumpauer joined SNCC in 1960 and served as an office assistant in Mississippi for several years. She participated in several sit-ins as well as the Freedom Rides. This vest demonstrates her longstanding commitment to the cause of equal rights. One button attached to the collar reads "Never" and was created by the White Citizens Council of Jackson, Mississippi, to indicate the group’s opposition to integration. By acquiring buttons like this and wearing them upside down, SNCC protesters aimed to invert their original meaning.

A pen that President Johnson used to sign the voting rights act of 1965.

1965 Voting Rights Act signing pen used by Lyndon B. Johnson. National Museum of African American History and Culture

President Lyndon B. Johnson used this pen to sign into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act outlawed the discriminatory voting practices that had led to the widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans throughout the country, which included literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses. It prohibited voting qualifications that denied or abridged "the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on the account of race or color."