The Big Picture: A Father and Daughter’s Main Street March
Sun 6 Jun 2021 02.00 EDT
This memorable shot of a civil rights protest in Memphis was taken by Ernest Withers, later revealed to be an FBI informant.
One of the early civil rights marches down Main Street in Memphis, Tennessee, was for fathers and daughters only. It was hoped the presence of young girls might reduce the chance of violence against protesters. In later life, Renee Andrewnetta Jones, who was eight months old at the time of this famous picture, looked back on the events in which she had been an unwitting participant. She had grown up to become a paediatrician in Memphis.
“To my understanding, my father, William Edwin Jones, made the sign himself,” she said. “He was a tall, stately man and as the police approached us, they had these intimidating looks, but my father wasn’t a man to be intimidated. A year after the picture was taken he was selected as one of the first black foreign service officers in the United States, posted with his family to Nigeria.” She had never forgotten the emotional force of the sign itself. “I always try to live without any boundaries,” she said, “because that is the way we were raised.”
The picture was one of thousands taken by Ernest Withers, a pioneering African American photographer, who covered everything in Memphis from the Emmett Till trial, to the emergence of Elvis Presley, to the march on the day of Martin Luther King’s assassination in the city, when thousands of protestors carried signs proclaiming “I Am a Man”. Withers worked for Time and many other publications. The slogan on his business card read: “Pictures tell the story.” It was only after his death in 2007 that the full story of Withers’s life emerged, however. Starting in the early 1960s, documents showed that he spent nearly two decades as a paid informant for the FBI, giving its agents information about the civil rights activists he photographed in order, it seems, to pay for a college education for his eight children.
Revolution in Black and White: Photographs of the Civil Rights Era by Ernest C Withers is published by CityFiles Press