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Dr. Martin Luther King Is Confronted

gelatin silver print
14 7/8 in. x 18 1/2 in. (37.78 cm x 46.99 cm)
Rosmond deKalb Fund, 2001.22.6

Ernest C. Withers


In this photograph, Ernest Withers documented civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King’s participation in the funeral of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers, a civil rights advocate, was murdered on June 12, 1963. Confronted by two men in the foreground who face away from the camera, Dr. King appears somber. The artist focuses on King’s troubled face, framed by the backs of the two men. The composition lends a feeling of immediacy to the scene. This photograph captures a pivotal moment in the struggle for civil rights, while also providing a portrait of the civil rights leader in action.

Context and Analysis

A central figure in the civil rights movement, Medgar Evers served as the Mississippi field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1954 until his death in 1963. Evers was shot in the back outside his home by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith. His memorial ceremony in Jackson, Mississippi, was attended by six thousand people, including prominent civil rights leaders, and was followed by a funeral with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. De La Beckwith faced trial twice in 1964, but each time an all-white jury failed to reach a verdict. New evidence emerged much later, in the 1980s, leading to De La Beckwith’s conviction for murder in 1994.

Withers worked in and around Memphis, Tennessee, as a freelance photographer for over sixty years. His subjects included soul and rhythm and blues musicians in Memphis and Negro League baseball players. His most famous work was his extensive documentation of the civil rights movement. Withers photographed key moments of the struggle, including the Emmett Till murder trial, the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Medgar Evers murder case, and the sanitation workers’ strike during which King was assassinated.

Photographs of the civil rights movement were vital to its success, offering visual evidence of its struggles and encouraging empathy for its participants. Withers gained the trust of the inner circle of the movement’s leadership, and he regularly attended their strategy meetings. Withers knew Medgar Evers personally and had worked closely with him since the mid-1950s. As an African American photographer documenting the struggle for civil rights, Withers put himself into danger. During his coverage of Evers’s funeral, he was harassed by police and spent four hours in jail.

After the photographer’s death in 2007, inquiries made under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that Withers had long been an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), monitoring key figures in the civil rights movement leadership. The FBI, as part of its larger, now controversial COINTELPRO program, closely tracked many civil rights leaders, including King.

This information raises the question: How does Withers’s role as an FBI informant change his photographic legacy? Historical evidence shows that the FBI targeted the leaders of the civil rights movement, and it is clear that Withers assisted the agency. At the same time, Withers skillfully and even courageously provided important documentation through his photographs of the movement. Whatever opinion we may form of Withers himself, his work should make us think about the complexity of photographs as historical evidence.


Dr. Martin Luther King Is Confronted is part of a portfolio owned by the Currier. It consists of ten photographs by Withers documenting the civil rights movement from 1956 through 1968(Currier, 2001.22.1 , 2001.22.2 , 2001.22.3 , 2001.22.4 , 2001.22.5 , 2001.22.7 , 2001.22.8 , 2001.22.9 , 2001.22.10 ). The subjects of these photographs range from the first desegregated bus ride in Montgomery, Alabama, to the death of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Written by Martin Fox


Anstead, Alicia. “Ernest Withers: A Second Look.” Art New England, July–August 2011. (accessed July 1, 2013).

Hurley, F. Jack, Brooks Johnson, and Daniel J. Wolff. Pictures Tell the Story: Ernest C. Withers: Reflections in History. Norfolk, VA: Chrysler Museum of Art, 2000.

Perrusquia, Marc. “Photographer Ernest Withers Doubled as FBI Informant to Spy on Civil Rights Movement.” Commercial Appeal, September 12, 2010. (accessed July 1, 2013).

Peterson, Alison J. “Ernest Withers, Civil Rights Photographer, Dies at 85.” New York Times, October 17, 2007. (accessed July 1, 2013).

2002 Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, "Ernest Withers: I Am a Man; Recent Acquistion." Feb. - May.

2004 Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH, "African American Masters: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum." April 2 - June 7.

2020 Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH, "Photographs from The Civil Rights Movement" August 13 -Dec. 21, 2020

Panopticon, Inc.
Purchased by Currier Gallery of Art, 2001

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