Who was Ernest Withers? Most Americans may not know the name, but they do know his photographs. Withers took some of the most legendary images of the 1950s and ’60s: Martin Luther King, Jr., riding a newly integrated bus in Montgomery, Alabama; Emmett Till’s uncle pointing an accusatory finger across the courtroom at one of his nephew’s killers; scores of African-American protestors, carrying a forest of signs reading "I am a man." But while he enjoyed unparalleled access to the inner workings of the civil rights movement, Withers was working as an informant for the FBI.
In this gripping narrative history, Preston Lauterbach examines the complicated political and economic forces that informed Withers’s seeming betrayal of the people he photographed. Withers traversed disparate worlds, from Black Power meetings to raucous Memphis nightclubs where Elvis brushed shoulders with B.B. King. He had a gift for capturing both dramatic historic moments and intimate emotional ones, and it may have been this attention to nuance that made Withers both a brilliant photographer and an essential asset to the FBI. Written with similar nuance, Bluff City culminates with a riveting account of the 1968 riot that ended in violence just a few days before Dr. King’s death.
Brimming with new information and featuring previously unpublished and rare photographs from the Withers archive not seen in over fifty years, Bluff City grapples with the legacy of a man whose actions—and artistry—make him an enigmatic and fascinating American figure.
Preston Lauterbach is the author of Bluff City, Beale Street Dynasty, and The Chitlin Circuit, a Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe book of the year. He is a former visiting scholar at Rhodes College and a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Fellow. He lives near Charlottesville, Virginia.
Following the Civil War, Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, thrived as a cauldron of sex and song, violence and passion. But out of this turmoil emerged a center of black progress, optimism, and cultural ferment. Preston Lauterbach tells this vivid, fascinating story through the multigenerational saga of a family whose ambition, race pride, and moral complexity indelibly shaped the city that would loom so large in American life.
Robert Church, who would become “the South’s first black millionaire,” was a mulatto slave owned by his white father. Having survived a deadly race riot in 1866, Church constructed an empire of vice in the booming river town. He made a fortune with saloons, gambling, and—shockingly—white prostitution. But he also nurtured the militant journalism of Ida B. Wells and helped revolutionize American music through the work of composer W.C. Handy, the man who claimed to have invented the blues.
In the face of Jim Crow, the Church fortune helped fashion the most powerful black political organization of the early twentieth century. Robert and his son, Bob Jr., bought and sold property, founded a bank, and created a park and auditorium for their people finer than the places whites had forbidden them to attend.
However, the Church family operated through a tense arrangement with the Democrat machine run by the notorious E. H. “Boss” Crump, who stole elections and controlled city hall. The battle between this black dynasty and the white political machine would define the future of Memphis.
Brilliantly researched and swiftly plotted, Beale Street Dynasty offers a captivating account of one of America’s iconic cities—by one of our most talented narrative historians.