That Memphis Photographer: How Ernest Withers captured THE photo of the Emmett Till murder trial

By David Mason

There was just the slightest tik when it happened. No one noticed.

On Wednesday, September 21, 1955, the reverend Mose Wright, sixty-four years old, five-foot three, and Black, took the witness stand. He may have been the only person who expected that he’d testify at all in a Mississippi county, where witnesses for the prosecution were very hard to come by. Some, as chronicled by reporters on the scene, had already been disappeared by officers of the law, whisked away and detained in far-flung locales. Or perhaps worse.

Around 9:30 in the morning, Wright pointed a finger at J. W. Milam, one of the two white men accused of murdering Emmett Till, and said, “There he is.”

There’s a hazy photograph of the moment.

Post-facto accounts like to say that Ernest Withers, photographer from Memphis, young-ish, impetuous, always on some hustle or other, acted on impulse. Stood up at Mose Wright’s steel instant, did Withers. Quickly raised a camera. Snapped. So, the hazy photo of this momentous moment—say the accounts—comes from the instinctive action of someone a bit reckless, a bit lucky, someone who had a gift for sneakiness when a few dollars might be made.

“When he thought no one was looking…” That’s Marc Perrusquia, the reporter who broke the story in 2010 that Withers was some sort of FBI informant, back in the day. Clearly a rapid shot, says Perrusquia in A Spy in Canaan. A bit blurry, he writes. Out of focus. Someone in the foreground trying to block the shot. A shot that Withers couldn’t have known would be of such consequence. I mean, he sold the film straightaway, after all. The very day. To some guy from a wire service. Just turned the undeveloped film over for a few bucks. A cash-starved photographer. That’s Perrusquia’s account – and the account of lore – for Withers and his photo.

That hazy photograph says different. Says all sorts of different.

One thing we learn from that photo is that Ernest Withers was, perhaps, just as steel as Mose Wright, who knowingly and deliberately put himself in jeopardy in order to speak his truth to white power. Withers did, too. Contrary to speculation, the photo shows that Withers knew very well that there wasn’t a moment in that trial in which no one was looking, and, even so, the shot itself shows clearly that it wasn’t rapid or any other sort of quick. Hazy, not blurry.

There’s an important difference. And Withers certainly understood that he had made an image that mattered, really mattered, which is the better part of the reason he gave up the film that day. We know that he knew the image mattered because the photo tells us that he very carefully planned for it, plotted and planned and maneuvered, set everything up long before Mose Wright stood and pointed. Check it. That photo tells us that it didn’t come out of impulse but out of expertise—the kind of expertise that sees the very dire consequences that will follow a mistake in a place like Sumner, Mississippi, in 1955, and the kind of expertise that doesn’t allow the mistake to happen.

(Original, 1955 caption): This dramatic courtroom scene shows 64-year-old “Uncle Mose” Wright, Grand-Uncle of murdered Emmett Till, 14-year-old Negro boy, as he stood up in the packed chamber and pointed a finger at defendants, Roy Bryant and John W. Milan. In answer to a question asking him to identify the man who came to his home on the night of August 28 and took young Till away with them, Wright pointed and answered, “There they are.” The victims mother, Mrs. Mamie Bradley, is scheduled to testify today. Photograph by C. Ernest Withers. Copyright Getty Images, used here under paid licensing

2022 marks sixty-seven years since fourteen-year old Emmett Till was beaten brutally, near to death, then shot in the head, wrapped to a heavy cotton-gin fan with barbed wire, and dropped in a Mississippi river. There’s no way to dress it up nicely, as Till’s mother Mamie Bradley plainly said by insisting on an open-casket funeral and on the publication of photos of Till’s face, which was so badly mutilated that it offered the excuse by which the jury of twelve white men acquitted the two white men who were tried for the murder. Said Jim Pennington, member of the jury, after the acquittal: “The body was not definitely identified.”

David Jackson’s photographs of Till’s mangled and mutilated body, taken at the Chicago funeral, ran through the so-called Black press of 1955. Jet and Ebony, for instance. The Pittsburgh Courier. The Chicago Defender, of course, which printed more on the matter of Till’s murder and the trial than anyone. The Call and Post in Cleveland. Papers committed to white readership barely touched them, but the photos nevertheless penetrated the country’s collective attention so far that by the time the trial began on September 19, Sumner, Mississippi, was already creaking under the weight of the steno pads, microphones and recording machines, typewriters, teletypes, telefaxes, cigarettes, coffee, antacids, and all of the loose change that a quivering herd of reporters needed in the mid-fifties to get their daily dispatches in to the home office.

A couple of weeks after Till’s funeral, Jackson went to Sumner for the trial. He was among several Black journalists in the Sumner courthouse that September week. Not one of them was welcome. At the outset, Tallahatchie County Sheriff Clarence Strider had simply barred them all.

“I ain’t having no n-[redacted] reporters in my courtroom,” he said.

When Judge Curtis Swango overruled him, the sheriff still managed to confine the small cohort of Black journalists to their own, equal-but-separate nook, far to the side, against the west wall, out of the way. There they were. James Hicks for the Baltimore Afro-American, Simeon Booker for Jet, Clotye Murdock for Ebony. There was L. Alex Wilson for the Chicago Defender, all six foot three of him. He wouldn’t live more than another five years. And Steve Duncan of St. Louis’s weekly Argus, seated by sixty-eight-year-old Nannie Mitchell-Turner, who owned the Argus and not only insisted that her paper cover the trial, but also insisted on being personally present besides. A few photographers in addition to Jackson, including the Argus’ William Franklin and Withers for the Tri-State Defender out of Memphis. A battery of Black reporters, pressed together off to the side where they could see nothing directly nor hear anything clearly, but downstage-left, as folks say in the theatre business. Out front and, as a group, on display to the over-capacity gallery.

“Mawnin’, n-[redacted]s!” Every day, Sheriff Strider greeted the reporters he’d segregated. That’s just the kind of man he was.

Members of the Black press huddled around a card table along the west side of the courtroom on day 1 of the trial. Seen here, at far left in the flower-patterned dress, is Clotye Murdock, reporter for Ebony magazine. With her, his back to the camera and in the immediate foreground is David Jackson, the photographer who took the famous casket photo of Emmett Till’s tortured body. Clockwise to Clotye Murdock‘s left, writing on a notepad, is James L. Hicks, Afro-American Newspapers; sitting upright is L. Alex Wilson, of the (Memphis) Tri-State Defender; Steve Duncan, of the St. Louis Argus; and just right of center, with his back toward the camera, is Simeon Booker of Jet magazine. Copyright Getty Images, used here under paid licensing.

The courtroom itself—soaked in Delta humidity, the odor of far too many sweaty, sweating bodies, and the smoke of cigarettes that the judge had allowed, along with sandwiches, Cokes, and beer—was, by Wednesday morning, already a cooking pot of indignation, steam escaping from under the lid, over the effrontery, the brazenness, by which the press, all these upstarts and outsiders, thought they could just come to town, look, and say things about Our Way of doing things.

“How come those blankety-blank newspapers are making all this fuss?” Jay Milner, in the Jackson-based Clarion-Ledger, channeling the attitudes of locals under the headline “Sumner Folk Already Plenty Bored.” The story ran on the morning of September 21—before Mose Wright or anyone else had said word one of what they knew.

The outrage over strangers of all sorts in this boiled-peanuts corner of the USA dialed up the temperature in the already sultry courtroom, but the idea of Black people with the gall to comport themselves like real journalists and to say things, just say things, out loud, like they’d a right, about a Mississippi trial, made the trial’s white crowd seethe.

“I watched these tan faces wringle into a kind of belligerent signal when an expensively dressed Negro reporter or photographer would stride confidently past them.” Milner, again, in the Clarion-Ledger.

Interior view of the segregated seating in the packed Tallahatchie County Courthouse during the trial of J W Milam and Roy Bryant who were accused of the murder of Emmett Till, Sumner, Mississippi, September 1955. The Black press is seated at a card table at the west end of the courtroom, just out of this photo’s range, to the right of the man (might be J. J. Mason on assignment from Chicago) standing at the upper-right corner. (Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images) used here under paid licensing.

That’s a common feature of the newspaper accounts. White folks’ faces. Twisted and torn, this way and that. As important to the white press as the fodder for salaciousness that a tale of a wolf-whistling youngster and a dark-haired, dark-eyed, white-skinned beauty served up were the many ways in which white folks showed that they couldn’t believe, couldn’t bear, wouldn’t tolerate, what was happening to Our Way.

“Attention received by the fashionably dressed Negro woman swept an expression of almost painful dislike across the faces of local spectators.”

One is caught by the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s achievement of simultaneously demeaning Till’s mother Mamie Bradley and the revolted crowd.

Folks painted the NAACP as the principal problem—hysterical, money-grubbing, communists, standing in front of any mic that might be operational, wailing like cats, on the radio, on tv, about this here problem that’s in our state and that we’ll tend to, like civilized people, in Our Way, thank you very much. ¹

¹ Said Sheriff Strider, back in 1955: “We never have any trouble until some of our Southern [redacted]s go up North and the NAACP talks to ‘em and they come back home.” Said John Whitten on NPR on August 28, 2019: “Every day, somebody’s dragging up the race card. Somebody saying we have racial… disparity here. If nobody would stir that damn pile of stuff up, it wouldn’t stink.”

John Whitten’s father, Till trial defense lawyer John W. Whitten, closed his 1955 arguments to the jury, thus: “I’m sure every last Anglo-Saxon one of you men in this jury has the courage to set these men free.”

“Trained seals,” that’s what they are, all those NAACP agents set loose to delight “the Communists” and to make it “very difficult for decent people in Mississippi to act in the course of righting the original wrong.” The Delta Democrat-Times out of Greenville white-splained the real problem for everyone. But the press, especially the Black press—and any press that would air the NAACP’s troublemaking was Black press—was in cahoots and equally culpable. Would have been much, much better, said the D-T, to have “all NAACP representatives ousted from the courtroom and all Negro publications censored.”

Onlookers made a regular practice of taking the Black journalists’ chairs. Hardly the worst of it.

During the course of the trial, Sheriff Strider made inflammatory public statements to the effect that armies of Black people from Chicago were coming to revenge themselves on the tiny town.

A thousand carloads, he claimed without any evidence. Instead of carloads of Chicago Negroes, reporters encountered roving trucks of shotgun-sporting white men and noted an uptick in the number of white men around Sumner who were carrying handguns. An eight-foot cross was burned within fifty yards of the courthouse. The Black journalists were forced to stay in Mound Bayou, the better part of an hour away from Sumner, and, even there, they were haunted and harassed, after hours, terrorized as they tried to locate people they’d heard had information of material relevance. People who might testify in the trial. People whom the law under Strider had hidden and otherwise absented. Hicks slept with a borrowed pistol.

In that pressure cooker, the judge had forbidden photography. Actually, on the very first day of the trial, the morning of Monday the 19th, Judge Swango had delayed the start of the trial for around twenty minutes to allow press photographers to get their wiggles out. But Swango decreed that no one would take pictures during proceedings. He even forbade the sketch artists to sketch.

Entrance to courtroom (Mark Fleischer photo)

No wonder then, when the third ruckus the next morning insinuated a breach of this decree, that things turned ugly. The first ruckus was Mamie Bradley. Till’s mother arrived from Chicago early that morning and walked into the courtroom, a fashionably dressed Negro woman, shortly before nine. Instantly, she was both swarmed and ignored. The pale, sweating masses took one look and turned their collective glare on Swango, to call this disgrace to order, already.

Reporters, on the other hand, jumped over chairs and each other to get to Bradley.

Photographers stood on tables to grab pictures of the victim’s mother, seated at the card table set up for Booker, Hicks, et al., and bloated Sheriff Strider standing next to her, barely keeping his breakfast down, as the photos of this instant show, handing her the obligatory subpoena to testify.

The second ruckus was Charles Diggs, congressman from Detroit, who had convinced Judge Swango through advance mail that he was attending only as a private citizen. But the cops wouldn’t let him in. Word from outside the building that a n-[redacted] Congressman was outside made its way inside to Sheriff Strider. Here, too, nine of every ten people in the courtroom made the kind of faces that gave the press good copy. White folks looked like they’d been told that Peter Pan had just flown in and wanted to sprinkle everyone in attendance with pixie dust.

“There’s a n-[redacted] here who says he’s a congressman.” One deputy to another.

“That ain’t even legal.” Another deputy.

It was Strider’s doing. The sheriff was still determined to show everyone whose courtroom it was. Berating Strider’s incompetence, the judge admitted Diggs, who was directed to the segregateds’ window and told not to make any more trouble. Thanks to Diggs’s advent, the Black journalists got a bigger table.

The third ruckus that Tuesday morning arose from a dispute over a chair. The Clarion-Ledger reported that a certain photographer—a certain Memphis photographer—had left a chair in order to get a view of Mamie Bradley over the ramparts of reporters who surrounded her.

When the moment of Bradley’s entrance passed, the Memphis photographer found that a white reporter had taken the chair. In a courtroom designed for one hundred and fifty people that was working to accommodate more than twice that many, chairs were precious. When Strider himself got involved in the ensuing property dispute, a gang of white reporters who had joined ranks around this chair charged that the photographer—the Memphis photographer—had “sneaked a picture” during formal proceedings the previous day.

This group of white reporters in this town of burning crosses and disappeared witnesses told officers of the law that a Black man had broken the rules.

These reporters topped it all by adding that “they would take action themselves” if the photographer—the Memphis photographer—were to act up again.

The judge, subsequently, repeated his embargo on photography, declaring that anyone breaking this rule would face punishment.

This was Tuesday, the second day of the trial. Jury finally selected and recessed to the next day to begin testimony. Which is to point out that prior to Mose Wright’s heroic stand on Wednesday, Ernest Withers had already been accused of breach of conduct with his camera, had been threatened for it by white men in that Sumner court that had already convicted the Black press in the room for crimes peculiar to the region, and Withers had been personally warned by the judge himself. Under these threats, censures, and warnings, Withers nevertheless arrived on Wednesday morning ready to get a photo.

Steel. That’s what Withers was.

For one thing, Withers gave up the chair. Describing the conditions in the overcrowded courtroom, the Delta Democrat-Times noted that some reporters simply sat on the floor. One might say, of course, that Withers arrived on Wednesday to find the chairs were all taken and that he didn’t have any options but a spot on the floor, behind and below Hicks and Booker and the rest at the table, one shoulder pressed against the spindles of the balustrade—the proverbial bar that spanned the width of the room and designated the south end of the room for the important folks—the judge, jury, stenographers, bailiffs, the defense team, the prosecutors, and the white press—from the onlookers.

(The Black press in their nook at the window were on the not-important side of the bar.)

One might suppose that finding himself without a chair this morning, Withers simply conceded the point and parked himself in a space that was available.

But, as I’ve said, the picture says different. In fact, all the pictures say different.

Inset of Emmett Till murder trial, Sumner, Mississippi, September 1955. (Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images). Simeon Booker is to the far right, wearing glasses, in a dark jacket and white shirt, looking to the right toward the rear of the courtroom.

Look again at the panoramic shots of the full courtroom (inset, above), the shots that must have been taken in Judge Swango’s twenty-minute dispensation that first day. There are a couple of options that catch most of the room from back in the northeast corner, looking southward over everyone towards the step-up well of the court behind the bar. Judge Swango just to the left, up top.

Empty chair for witnesses, a bit left of Swango, facing the courtroom. That’s where Wright will stand on Wednesday.

A couple of the jury on the far, far left. And on the far right, the designated nook for the Black press—Simeon Booker looking back from behind his glasses, from the place he occupies in pretty much all the photos. Murdock just behind him.

In one such photo, you’ll see—standing to Booker’s side with a tripod—another photographer.

Might be J. J. Mason on assignment from Chicago. My reasoned guess is that this is Robert A. Coleman of Memphis. Whoever it is, he’s got the spot. The spot. Right where Mason, or Coleman, or whoever is standing—that’s the only angle in the courtroom that would produce the photo of Mose Wright, upright in the witness stand. Only from that spot could that almost perfect, left-side profile of Wright come, partly silhouetted by the sunlight coming in through the 9:30am windows of the east wall behind him. One would have to be as far southward in the courtroom as a not-important person could be, right up against the bar, in that spot just beside and behind Simeon Booker, pointing across the well towards the jury on the far side, to frame that near-perfect profile.

Where that photographer and his print shirt went on Wednesday morning is anyone’s guess. If Withers took the Wright-pointing picture on that Wednesday morning of testimony, this other guy with a camera was elsewhere, and Withers had that spot.

Still looking at a broad, panoramic view of the courtroom. Maybe still at that shot that shows that still-anonymous photographer and his tripod standing, probably Monday morning, in that spot of photographic privilege in the background—of privilege where privilege was denied.

Considering this broad view, one sees that Withers on Wednesday would have had to grab at Wright’s image, standing in testimony, across at least ten yards on the well side of the rail, and across twenty or more important people sitting there between photographer and witness. Well, no problem, obviously. One can see that a person with a camera standing where that other photographer is standing in the courtroom panorama that a standing person’s camera can easily clear the heads of twenty or so sitting people. And Wright would make a clear view all the easier by so magnanimously standing up, as he did.

But the photographer clicking over the heads of important folks can’t be squared with the photo of Mose Wright. I’m not unaware that, late in his life, Withers himself said something to the effect that when Mose Wright pointed he, Withers, “got up and took that picture.” Said it in a stretch of an interview with WGBH that’s dated 2017, though Withers died in 2007.

But. But. You can see the undersides of the tabletops in Withers’s testimonial photo of Mose Wright. A camera can’t report on the undersides of tabletops unless it’s looking up from down below the tops. That’s just physics. When it clicked, that camera was low, low, low, looking up.

When one attempts in the courtroom to recreate the shot, as I have, one finds oneself shooting lower, lower, lower, checking the framing in one’s instant LCD display and shooting lower still, until one is right on the floor, lying on one’s side on the floor, squinting sideways through the camera that is now right on the floor—the floor of the well, the important side of the bar, just a six-inch step up from the floor of the gallery that’s open to the hoi polloi. There on the step-up floor of the well, one’s camera finally finds the view. Pretty much at the height of a camera that might be resting in the lap of a person sitting on the floor on the not-important side of the bar.

Something that the photo tells us. On that Wednesday, Ernest Withers took a seat on the floor.

And he didn’t get up. Never mind the dispute and the threat from the day before. There may have been ten empty chairs when Withers arrived at the courthouse that morning, and the Memphis photographer still would have put his rump on that hard floor, exactly where he did, because he’d figured out during the two days of jury selection, Monday and the abbreviated Tuesday, just where a person who had a mind to show the world what was happening down there in Tallahatchie County would have to be to see the witnesses, one after another, without being seen. Knowing well enough how Mississippi was hurling Black people this way and that for only the happenstance of knowing something materially relevant to Till’s murder, knowing how fellow reporters had already been shadowed and menaced after hours, having been roughly frisked that morning, himself, already, on the way into the room, having been greeted with the customary contempt, unrestrained and unapologetic, of the rotund embodiment of the county’s racist law—having already been censured by the judge himself—and knowing that there against the bar, there in their set-aside and set-apart nook, the otherwise-complexioned of the press corps were on uninterrupted display to a couple hundred press-hating, gun-toting custodians of Our Way, Withers chose the floor and with no intention of bringing himself up from it. No standing at the Mose Wright moment. Withers did nothing that might have drawn anyone’s eye while Mose Wright indicted the whole system.

Yes, but ten yards and twenty or more people in between… I mean, how is a low, low, low camera going to see a witness, standing or not, through twenty pairs of gabardine trousers and cap-toe oxfords?

As it happens, from this one spot on the hoi-polloi hardwood, against the west wall, pressing against the balustrade’s spindles, and pointed, just so, between them, there’s a ditch running in a straight shot from floor to witness, a just-clear channel across the well, between the prosecution team around their suitably broad and solid table on the left and the clerk’s hut on the right, just catching the down-left corner of Judge Swango’s bench to bump, finally, into the back of James O’Day’s chair and O’Day, the court reporter, sitting in it, there, tipped to one side over the table that fronted the witness’s chair and scribbling dutifully. It’s a miraculous sort of thing, a marvel, that one, just-clear channel through what seems from all other angles—just look at the panorama—an impenetrable chaos of bodies crowding the well. From low, low, low, there against the segregated wall and the spindles, a person discovers this singular, straight shot through everything. Or, rather, a person who knows how to look for such things discovers it, because a marvel like that doesn’t just open itself to a sudden, reckless impulse. A person has to find such a marvel.

Withers found it. It was his business. He was a Memphis photographer, you know, and photographers, whether from Memphis or elsewhere, do that sort of thing. Look for shots. Look for channels. Look for ways of seeing that no one else sees. Either Monday or Tuesday while lawyers wrangled over which white men to seat in the jury, the Memphis photographer was finding this spot, this marvel of a spot, that brought him low, low, low, out of the sight of Our Way, that opened for a camera, even just resting in his lap, a channel that no one would ever think was there, a private, proprietary view of any witness who might stand in the stand. Of course Withers could get a photo of this most exalted of scenes, in spite of the judge’s order, other reporters’ jealous threats, and the itching crowd. He’d sought out that spot. From that spot, no wonder that he could get it. No one in that room would suspect for a second that that guy on his ass down there, down low, low, low, would be able to get a photo. He’s obviously just carefully, submissively toeing Our Way’s line, down there. No need to pay that guy any mind. Withers found—he gave up a chair for it—that most marvelously suited of spots.

Not blurry, neither. A person with the kind of know-how that Withers had would not have not focused. He was thirty-three at the time of the trial. Not straight out of the gate, by any reckoning. He’d been pursuing photos since he was in high school, and he’d gotten formal photography training in the army during WWII. He’d been working as a professional, already, for a decade. A photographer with that much experience would not have not focused. It’s certainly true that the most accomplished of photographers can be caught unprepared by a moment that barks now!, whatever the state of the kit. But there on the floor… For how long before Wright is called? For how long in the testimony before Wright stands and points? An hour, sitting there on the floor? Given the reports and the verbatim transcript of the trial, he sat there for thirty minutes, at the very, very least. There on the floor, out of sight on the floor, where there’s only one thing a person can see through the marvel ditch—the witness stand—a person who’s been handling cameras for the better part of twenty years is not going to just sit, staring through a hard-discovered marvel at the one thing for thirty minutes, at the very, very least, and not focus.

Blurry in the foreground, fine. That white guy, looming up front, who gets cut out in most reproductions of the shot, he’s not in focus. Also, he’s not reprimanding anyone. Imagine how things would have gone differently for Withers had the judge become aware that even after a formal, personal warning and the threat of punishment, Withers had photographed proceedings. And never mind Withers, on his own. Simeon Booker reports that some of the less unhelpful white reporters had advised the segregateds: They’re waiting for just one incident so they can pitch out all of you. Things might have gone differently for Booker, Murdock, Hicks, Wilson, Duncan, et al.

Just imagine. Black sharecropper points a finger at white merchant in a court room in Mississippi in 1955, and the clerk just at reach of Judge Swango’s left-arm, in front of everybody, lurches and looms towards the segregateds’ nook, waving an arm, yelping about breaking the rules.

James Hicks, on the scene for the Baltimore Afro-American, could imagine. He and the rest of the Black reporters, all of them, could imagine. “We had worked it out,” said Hicks of what they could all imagine as the next thing that white people would do in the event that a Black man like Wright accused a white man, or two, of anything in a Mississippi courtroom, let alone a capital crime. In their collective imagining below their window to the side, Clotye Murdock would jump out of that second-floor window, Hicks would wrest a gun from a bailiff, everyone else would grab chairs or anything “and fight our way out—if we could.” That’s what the Black people in the situation could imagine even without, even themselves, suspecting that Withers was down there taking forbidden photographs. Things might have gone very differently indeed for the whole battery over there if a white guy had loomed that direction. History might well have no Black eyewitness coverage of the trial at all.

Nah. That white guy isn’t doing anything. One hundred percent, he has no idea that he’s being caught on film by a guy sitting way off over there on the floor, below and behind the other segregateds, unmoving for the better part of an hour, camera just resting in his lap. Withers is not in that guy’s concerns, nor that looming white guy in Withers’s. That looming white guy is accordingly blurry.

Mose Wright’s form, in the photo, one might say, isn’t exactly sharp. The haziness comes from an expert’s efforts to grab the best possible image in unfavorable circumstances. The racial animus in the room was bad enough. Withers was also pointing Eastward into the sun. The shades are drawn, but the shades aren’t opaque, and a 9:30 or 10 a.m. sun is pushing its light into the space behind the subject. No digital doohickies, here, no sensors, no algorithms to automatically compensate for backlighting. Here in a 1955 trial, the camera is nothing but what it is—a lens in a box—and a person either knows what to do with it, given what’s given, or a person doesn’t.

The fan blades speak a bit. To put the image on the film, the camera’s shutter must open so as to allow light into the camera, and light and whatever image it carries will just keep piling onto the film as long as the shutter is open, until the film—and it doesn’t take long—is simply bleached blank. Because we don’t see individual fan blades in this image, the fan clearly spun a bit in the time that Withers’s shutter opened to the light.

On the other hand, Mose Wright’s finger does not blur. That’s some experience, right there. To get the shutter speed just right—letting the fan blades go but freezing the finger—under the tough conditions of a bright morning sun behind an otherwise unlit room, a person might take a reading with a light meter, but to do it the person would have to stand where Mose Wright is standing, and that, obviously, was out of the question in the time and place under consideration, here. Withers had just his own sense of what’s what to go on. Just his finger in the air, so to speak.

As it happens, Kodak had made its “Try-X,” 400-speed, black-and-white film available in rolls just the year before the trial. Very, very popular film for photojournalists. It’s not really a thing anymore, in these days of digital files, but there was a time in which grain was a physical property of a picture, correlating with the size, more-or-less, of silver particles on the film that would alter under light. The larger the grains, the less light would be necessary to effect some alteration in them that people would then recognize, taken together, as a reproduction of some form in the world. Accordingly, with larger grains in the film, a camera could do better at gathering enough light for an acceptable image through a more quickly opening and closing shutter. More image. Less blur. Faster. A person with a clever, expert, finger-in-the-air sense of what the light would do in time to the grains could ensure that Mose Wright, in our history, has not only a finger, but a face.

All this very clever, very expert, figuring and preparing, and the snapping of the image, itself, would not have required Withers to rise an inch from his seat on the floor, nor even to raise the camera a smidge from its place in his lap.

After less than an hour that Friday—less than an hour of deliberations after less than three days of testimony in a murder case—the jury returned and said, “Not guilty.” So eager to declare innocence were they that they botched it, and the twelve white men had to be sent back out to prepare the statement and the form, properly. A few more minutes away and they came back to state, for the record, “We find the defendants ‘Not guilty.’”

Lots of photographs, from this point. Sharp and high-contrast. Milam, smoking a cigar. His wife Juanita grinning like a chimp. Hugs all around. The post-verdict photos are as crisp as crisp can be. You can imagine the lightning storm of exploding, filler flash bulbs in those unfettered, front-page moments.

There’s Roy Bryant, sitting with Carolyn, who started it all by saying to someone that Till whistled at her, or spoke to her, or put a hand on her, or something. Ed Clark caught quite the beatific aura from her upturned face. If photos could talk, this one would be saying, “Whew!”

Original StoryBoard sketch from Ed Clark’s September 1955 photo. (Publishing rights to original photo unknown as of October 2022)

But put Carolyn aside. Roy, too. They aren’t what’s really important in this photo.

Off to the left and up in the window—in that very window on the western wall beneath which Sheriff Strider had kept Black press throughout the trial—that’s Ernest Withers, right there, grabbing a photo in the way that Memphis photographers do, this time in the direction in which the light is falling, this late afternoon on a Friday.

And that’s a Graflex Pacemaker Crown Graphic camera, circa 1953, that his eye is aiming. He’s got it to his eye, here, but not because it’s the only way to do it.

Ernest Withers’s circa 1953 Crown Graphic, the camera that took the Mose Wright photo— lens board, bellows, Graflok back, and all. Now residing in the Withers Gallery archives at 333 Beale Street in Memphis. (David Mason photo)

Ernest Withers’s circa 1953 Crown Graphic (David Mason photo)

General issue press camera, the Crown Graphic. Very flexible instrument. Allows for 4×5, large format film sheets, which make for great photographs, but which are a bit unwieldy and which demand potentially problematic time and fussing in their loading and unloading after each shot.

But the Crown Graphic can be equipped with an adapter that lets a photographer use roll film.

With the Graflok back on the Crown Graphic, and in a situation in which photographs were forbidden, anyway, a photographer would have plenty of available frames on a roll of, say, Tri-X, 400-speed film, without the perilous distraction of removing and replacing sheet holders.

The Crown Graphic can be focused for some things without looking. It’s not the sort of set up that we’re accustomed to whereby rotation of the lens, this way and that, brings the target in and out of clarity, so that one must be holding the camera to one’s eye in order to watch the in-and-out of the sharpness. The Crown Graphic has a bellows—just like it sounds—an opaque bellows that stretches out, accordion-like, from the camera box. On the front end of the bellows, running on tracks like a train, is a lens-board, and extending and withdrawing the bellows brings an object of interest into focus. The eye, really, is superfluous. Since focusing correlates with lens shapes and distances, focus can be calculated mathematically, and Graflex paid a bunch of engineers to make and to mark those calculations on the lens board’s tracks.

A person with a Crown Graphic can focus a camera neatly without any show of doing any such thing. Just stretch the bellows to match the lens board to the right number on the tracks.

Someone who really knows what he’s doing can certainly focus the Crown Graphic on a person some fifteen yards off while sitting on the floor with the camera in his lap, as though doing nothing, nothing untoward, at all.

That Crown Graphic, circa 1953, came OEM (original equipment manufacturer) with a 135mm lens, made by the Wollensak craftspersons in Rochester, New York. Not just a drop of polished glass. A complex watchwork mechanism, is the Raptar lens that the Graflex company licensed and rebranded as its own, under the Optar name. Shutter speed. Aperture dilation. As one would expect, a person can dial up such things on the Optar in advance of a moment that a person expects is coming. There’s also the fact that the Raptar’s/Optar’s shutter does not snap, open and closed, upon the instant of pointing and clicking. The spring-loaded shutter must be cocked. There’s a lever on the outside of the lens for this purpose. Pull the lever with your thumb and with a slight rasp of biting teeth the shutter is set to snap but won’t until a you manually trigger the shutter release.

A separate, tiny lever, needing only the slightest twitch to set it off, and, then tik, it’s done.

Almost all the noise of the watchworks is bound up in the setting of the shutter, which a person who might be worried about attracting attention would do far in advance. Then, at the momentous moment of a pointing finger, a person need barely twitch, and a tik, just a slight tik.

No one would notice nor know that a person had a picture. A damning picture. A picture to reveal rottenness to the blind people of a blind country. A picture also to reveal steel in an elderly, Black sharecropper, who stood to lose everything by standing—literally standing—to put the finger to Our Way.

And what of Withers’s near-sighted-ness for selling the film to the first guy who happened by?

At that point on Wednesday morning, Withers had already heard from Ebony’s Clotye Murdock of the truck that passed by Mose Wright’s house the day before the trial. Slowing down from a distance, passing slow, at a crawl, while Murdock and David Jackson sat watching with Wright on the same porch from which Wright had watched Milam and Bryant drive off with Emmett Till at two in the morning a few weeks before. Withers would have known on that Wednesday about the six white men standing in the back, holding shotguns, as the truck crawled past Wright’s porch.

“Is it hunting season now, Reverend Wright?” Jackson asked the question once the truck and its men with their shotguns were gone. No one said anything while the truck creeped by. (I do mean creeped, not crept.)

“Unless it’s us they got in mind.” That’s what Mose Wright had to say.

There was Withers on that testimonial Wednesday, once the proceedings had closed and the sweaty crowd was pushing doorwards. Roll of film wound up. Dropped in a pocket. Withers thought about the photo there and all that it could say that matters. Thought about the judge who’d pre-emptively outlawed it. Thought about a truckful of shotguns, slowly creeping by.

There he was at the close of day. Ernest Withers and a pocketful of dangerous, damning history.

Someone came alongside. Some guy who tipped his head so as not to be heard by the lumps who were jostling for some place in the exit order. Some guy who said he worked for a wire service.

For a few bucks, Withers sold the film to that guy from a wire service.

And Mose Wright, standing in a Mississippi courtroom, pointing at the white men who murdered Emmett Till—the “most dramatic thing” that some journalists in the room claimed they’d ever seen—within two weeks of the trial appeared in print to confront everyone.

David Mason is a writer and storyteller in Memphis, Tennessee. Mr. Mason is the Director of Asian Studies at Rhodes College and is the editor of Ecumenica: Journal of Theatre and Performance

Read the story behind the story, featuring further analysis and interviews with David Mason and Rosalind Withers, daughter of the late Ernest Withers, whose centennial we commemoration this year, 2022.

Select Bibliography/For more reading:

Simeon Booker’s account “To Be A ‘Negro’ Newsman – Reporting on the Emmett Till Murder Trial” from Neiman Reports

Justice Department calls it quits on Emmett Till probe. No charges” by Jerry Mitchell for Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

“Remembering Emmett Till,” from the U.S. Civil Rights Trail

“The Double Life of Civil Rights Photographer and FBI Informant Ernest Withers, by Alice Speri from The Intercept

The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation

The publication of “That Memphis Photographer” is made possible in part by the collaboration with the Withers Collection Museum & Gallery, and the 1687Club’s NFT Withers Art Project to preserve the collection’s history. Images and signature used with full partnership with the Withers Collection and Rosalind Withers, and by the Emmett Till murder trial images of Getty Images.

The cover illustration of Issue III of StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly (below), is a 1687Club artist rendition of the camera used by Ernest Withers to capture the Mose Wright image during the Emmett Till murder trial.

2 Replies to “That Memphis Photographer: How Ernest Withers captured THE photo of the Emmett Till murder trial”

  1. I loved reading this. Too bad Withers was a traitor. It’s hard to reconcile the two personalities.

    1. Hi Donna. Glad you enjoyed this. I wouldn’t judge Mr. Withers too harshly – the FBI’s involvement with the civil rights movement was deep, complex, and unavoidable. Thousands of Black men in the movement were under surveillance by the FBI in those days, and quite a few of these men all over the country were cornered or threatened into becoming informants. At the same time, the FBI provided some protections for many of these men from threats, and helped protect their families. In addition, I learned that Withers never revealed anything that was said in private meetings. My takeaway from what I’ve learned about him is that he was shrewd as well as brave, and did what he needed to do to stay clear of harm and support his family.

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