Withers Symposium panelists (l-r): Wozoka Subukwe, Dr. A. J. Stovall, Pam Ali, Mary Mudiku and Andrew “Rome” Withers, photographer, son of Ernest C. Withers and head of the Ernest C. Withers Historical Photographic Foundation. (Courtesy photo)

by Canisha Robertson

Special to The New Tri-State Defender

The “Historical Symposium” held last week at The LeMoyne-Owen College unfolded in conjunction with the dedication of the Memphis home of renowned photojournalist Ernest C. Withers and began with a provocative question.

“Do you believe we are in a post racial society?”

State Rep. Joe Towns Jr., who represents District 84 in the Tennessee General Assembly, posed the question as the symposium’s moderator.

“It’s the same society we’ve always been in. It hasn’t changed. You know slavery is slavery,” said panelist Wozoka Sobukwe, owner of the Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom School & Culture Center.

“My grandfather was born in 1942 and worked for a white man. Fast forward to 2016-2017 (and) I’m working for white folks in Mississippi. I pay taxes to white folks. It’s the same society. Nothing has changed except for the way things look,” Sobukwe said.

“But we got news for the ‘slave masters’ in 2018. We ain’t putting up with it.”

That statement drew applause from the crowd and other panelists at the event (Feb. 9) in the college’s Little Theatre inside the Alma C. Hanson Memorial Student Center.

The symposium, sponsored by the Ernest C. Withers Historical Photographic Foundation, also included educator Pam Ali, artist and activist Mary Mudiku, Dr. A. J. Stovall, chair of the Department of Social Science at Rust College in Holly Springs, Miss., and photographer Andrew “Rome” Withers, son of Ernest Withers and head of the Ernest C. Withers Historical Photographic Foundation.

“When we talk about racism, we need to first understand what it is,” Ali said. “A lot of people don’t know. Anybody can be prejudice, anybody can discriminate, but when we talk about racism we have to talk about power in the system.

“For example, how often do you hear about an African-American police officer brutality killing a European-American young person? It doesn’t happen,” she said.

“It’s all a power system. European Americans know they a have power system behind them that’s called white supremacy that allows them to do the things that they do. So as long as we have capitalism, as long as we have Europeans in this country, that’s our reality,” she said.

The Withers home is located at 480 West Brooks Rd. and a historical marker was unveiled there the day following the symposium. It was more than a place where Withers and his wife Dorothy raised their family. It was a place where deep-rooted conversations involving community-oriented people took place. Among the conversations were those that led to the People’s Convention, which catapulted Dr. Willie W. Herenton into position to become the first African American elected mayor of Memphis.

State Rep. Joe Towns Jr. (standing left) moderated the symposium. (Courtesy photo)

Withers is best known for capturing on film more than 60 years of African-American history, much of it in the segregated south. His work includes iconic images of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the trial of the accused killers of Emmett Till, the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike, Negro League baseball and musical artists, especially the legendary artists who put Memphis music on the world’s map.

At the end of the symposium, everyone stood and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

An exhibit of Withers’ photographs was on display at the lower level of the student center right before entering symposium.

The turnout of so many people who loved and looked up to his father moved Andrew “Rome” Withers to tears.

“I just want to thank everybody up here because they were apart of this movement,” Wither said. It was no mistake we were together.”

Students from Rust and LeMoyne-Owen also participated in the symposium discussion.

“It was interesting to sit and see how some of the older generations’ thought process on our issues were similar to our generation’s,” said Karim Muhammad, president of The LeMoyne-Owen College Student Government Association.

“I liked how they respected our opinions and allowed us to freely speak.”

During the marker dedication the next day, Towns made reference to the interaction of the students and history makers in the community during the symposium. He called it a “fantastic recipe” for the future.