photos by Mark Fleischer
It came to us with a built-in headline and a dose of skepticism: “Ernest Withers at the Till Trial.” Instantly intriguing. Immediately warranting some healthy scrutiny.
After almost 70 years of perspective, what more could possibly be explored about the 1955 lynching and murder trial that unofficially launched the civil rights movement? The brutal, ugly, and devastating story has been the subject of dozens of books, papers and documentaries, a few film dramas, and hundreds of oral histories and interviews. What more could possibly be revealed?
Turns out, a lot.
In February, we received a contributor submission from David (Dave) Mason. He proposed a “6,000-word study of how Ernest Withers made the renowned photograph of Mose Wright, in the moment of accusing J. W. Milam during the Emmett Till murder trial. The conventional lore has it that Withers, on impulse, quickly stood and snapped the photo when Wright pointed a finger at Milam. But the history of the trial and the photo itself show that the lore about how Withers made the photo cannot be correct.”
We lingered over that last line. Now it really piqued our interest. The photo in question just happened to be the only photo taken during the trial. Yes, there were numerous photos taken before and after proceedings, in and around the courtroom itself. But this photo stands as the only photographic document of the trial proceedings, and at its most dramatic peak.
We don’t usually explain to our readers how or why we choose to print stories. We aren’t intentionally being secretive – frankly, the editorial process is not that interesting to read. With limited pages in each issue, we’d rather share our contributors’ unique perspectives than take up space with multiple editorial interjections and elaborations. Not many are interested in seeing how the sausage is made.
Dave’s story is an exception. For once, we have an important backstory – both why Dave decided to write it and why we decided to print it. After all, it’s not very often that we get an unsolicited submission promising a new interpretation of an iconic photograph.
When it landed in StoryBoard Associate Editor Caroline Carrico’s inbox, she also reviewed how Dave answered a contributor form question about the story’s relevance. His answer is what immediately intrigued Caroline:
“Ernest Withers is perhaps Memphis’s most famous photographer. The significance of his photographs to the civil rights movement cannot be overstated. Withers’s history has been significantly complicated by the revelation a decade ago that he operated as an FBI informant from the late-sixties into the early seventies. That history has to remain as the evidence gives it, but it will have to stand alongside all the other things that make Withers’s whole history. His Mose Wright photograph shows that, at the trial in 1955, Withers demonstrated not only considerable photographic expertise but also remarkable courage. It’s very clear that Withers knew that making a photo during the trial would put his life at risk, and he deliberately found a way—by planning in advance—to make a photo anyway.”
The historical nuance with which Dave argued for his interpretation is what prompted Caroline to pursue his proposal. History is a process of examining and reexamining evidence based on new understandings. It is complex and occasionally messy. Dave’s insistence on reexamining Withers’s actions to more completely understand his legacy made us pay attention.
Caroline followed up with Dave, asking about his credentials, background, sources, and research process. He replied that he wrote the story in 2020 and his sources included “newspaper accounts of the trial, the memoirs of the Black journalists who were there, some archival material…kept in the Ernest Withers Gallery, the transcript of the trial, photographs of the trial by Withers and a few other photographers…[and Dave’s] own examination of the restored courtroom in Sumner.” He also identified himself as a professor at Rhodes College, editor of a scholarly journal, and a book author.
In other words, we were confident in Dave as a legitimate researcher with sound methods. We read the piece before committing to publishing. We ran it by our board of directors, looked into the copyrights needed, and had our board attorney review it. Later, we touched base with Rosalind Withers, daughter of the late Ernest Withers, for her take on it.
Rosalind found it a revelation. For her, the story of how her dad must’ve gotten the historic photo made perfect sense, and was told in a way so compelling as to make it undeniable. It also spoke to her dad’s bravery in the face of very real threats to his life in a hostile atmosphere and a small Southern town that refused to tolerate his kind.
We believe it’s an important piece. And it’s compelling. Like a good detective story, it’s a quick read, despite its 6,000-word length. Dave Mason’s background in theater and his understanding of the importance of setting makes for a powerful interpretation.
For the story behind this story – why Dave chose to write it – I made plans with Dave to make a pilgrimage to the story’s setting in Sumner, Mississippi, to talk about his research and writing. Why did Dave think this photograph was important? How did he arrive at the conclusion that the lore of how the photo was made was wrong?
We spoke in March inside the Tallahatchie County Courthouse, which has been restored to its appearance during the September 1955 trial and is part of the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. That conversation, excerpted below, is now an episode of our StoryBoard 30 podcast.
Spoiler alert! Key reveals about Dave’s story follows below. If you’d prefer to read Dave’s story first, check out our feature story here: “That Memphis Photographer: How Ernest Withers captured THE photo of the Emmett Till murder trial”
Dave first visited the courtroom in July 2019 out of general interest. He was researching Withers, and the Till murder trial was an important episode in the photographer’s early professional life. This was years before the FBI pressed him into their services, when he was still hustling for income by photographing babies and newlyweds, bluesmen on Beale Street, Negro League ballplayers at Memphis’s Martin Stadium, and freelancing for the Chicago Defender.
Dave didn’t know exactly what he was looking for, but he wondered, “What if I’m there on the anniversary of the trial? What’s the room going to look like? What’s the light going to be like? I might be able to get some sense of the historical moment by being there when all the natural constellations are in alignment.”
He thought it would be straightforward to reenact the photo’s angle.
It was not.
He returned that September with his camera and, like any good photographer, carefully scanned the space. He came to the realization that “something was not right about the general narrative about how that photo was taken…The results didn’t match the photo that is part of the record.”
According to Dave, “When Mose Wright stands up, that moment is both everything and nothing at the same time. Because we know the outcome. On the one hand, that moment is everything about the trial. You’ve got a Black man standing up and saying, ‘These men did this thing.’ He’s a proof-positive witness. And Friday afternoon the 12 white jurors come in and find the defendants not guilty. From that perspective, what Mose Wright does affects nothing.”
“After the trial though, that photo makes a difference… A Black man in Mississippi standing up to white power is a big deal. And that photo circulates. Just the act of standing up and testifying as a witness is a big deal that amounts to nothing, but it’s a big deal anyway because the photo circulates and embeds that moment in the public consciousness forever after.”
Ernest Withers demonstrated remarkable courage by strategizing to take the photo even though he was in danger. To understand Withers’s legacy, we have to consider this part of his history as well as his later role as an FBI informant.
When I asked Dave why this particular photograph is important today, he said, “There’s a convergence of significances here. They collapse on each other in…that photo, [which] ends up being a pinpoint. The trial, including jury selection, takes 5 days…but because of that photo we all experience the trial as that one moment. And I think that’s appropriate here, 60 years down the road. That image ends up being the spot at which all these various significances collapse. To me, that photo feels like a hundred different things. It’s both a moment in time and a moment in space. That photo sticks with me because of the way it sits at the nexus of so many things.”
In May, as we got closer to publication, I met with Rosalind Withers, daughter of the late Ernest Withers and founder of the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery on Beale Street. Since this story is about her father, we wanted to get her reaction to Dave’s story – and alert her before it went to print – particularly since Dave’s account differs from how Withers himself recounted how he captured the image.
I spoke with Rosalind at the Withers Collection Museum. She mentioned that the Withers Collection includes a staggering 1.8 million archival photos, an estimate that they have thanks to the work of interns from Rhodes College. Sophia Mason, Dave’s daughter and a past contributor to StoryBoard, worked on that project while a student.
Remembering her father’s demeanor, Rosalind shared, “Dad had a finesse about him that was very smooth when it came to his photography. This was in ‘55. A lot of his training and skill set came in the 1940s. It was like an instrument that he perfected. He was seasoned in his craft…It was a click and an advance. He needed to know exactly when to press that button.”
I explained Dave’s process of trying to recreate the photo, which he could only do by getting down, down, down on the floor. Rosalind’s response was, “Get out of here! Are you serious? I didn’t think about that! I wonder if he was doing it under the table? That’s exciting.”
As to the reasons why he sold the roll of film, she believes it was to “take care of his family. He didn’t give it away, they paid for it. To him, that was work.” She also believes it was to get the image widely distributed through the Black press. And, to protect his own life. There had been threats to Black journalists, and the disappearances of potential Black witnesses who could further identify Emmett Till’s killers. ”Imagine if he had been caught with that photo?” she said.
Ultimately, she finds Dave’s interpretation very revealing. “And,” Rosalind said, “the conclusion of him having to do it from the floor is pretty accurate.”
Ernest Withers lived by the motto “pictures tell the story.” And even a casual analysis of Withers’s work reveals photography skills the man was born with. His Blues photos. His photos of Negro League Baseball. His photos of Dr. King. Even his photos of kids and families and everyday people. They all reveal a master at work. Spend some time with his photos and you can almost sense Mr. Withers lying on club stages, kneeling on pavement, shouldering through crowds. All to get The Shot.
In an interview for PBS’s American Experience, Withers called this an “innate ability” from his days as a policeman, a military man, and a football player. “All these things come together in experiences that give you the ability to know what the journalist will need to articulate the story.”
Regarding getting the Mose Wright photo, “It took what was basically a sporadic nerve that you’d have as a football player,” he said. “To make the right move at the right time. But nobody got up but me and took his picture.”
As to why Withers himself repeated the narrative that he “got up” to take the photo, we – Dave, Rosalind, all of us – could only speculate.
During the later years of his life and into his 80s, Withers sat down for numerous interviews. Some of his recollections were sharp, while others were blurred by time. And perhaps too by the sheer volume of his work. The man snapped 1.8 million photographs. Is it possible he remembers the conditions of some, but not all? Likely. Probably. It’s a question we may never have answered.
Finally, why did we decide to publish this story? The moment when Ernest Withers shot this photograph of Mose Wright is itself often a footnote, if it is mentioned at all.
And yet, a reporter who covered the trial for the New Orleans’s The Times-Picayune said it was “the most dramatic thing I saw in my career.” And Mamie Bradley remarked that Withers captured “the single most significant picture of the entire trial. . . It was a defiant moment that had to be preserved, even if the judge had restricted picture taking.”
At the same time, Bradley presents us with perhaps the most definitive corroboration we have, having been sitting right next to Mr. Withers during the trial. “So Ernest Withers pointed his camera very carefully,” she said, “aimed it between the people in front of him, straight through the opening, right at Papa Mose.”
We agree with Dave Mason; the circumstances, decisions, and consequences of Withers clicking the shutter is its own story.
And how could we not publish this story? As a publication that is willing to examine difficult histories, we know that we cannot truly know a place like the Mid-South unless we continue to examine where we have been to better focus our lenses on where we are going.
Select Bibliography/For more reading: