Emily Yellin and Rosalind Withers

Recorded March 3, 2020 Archived March 3, 2020 40:56 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: ddb002558


Emily Yellin (58) and her conversation partner Rosalind Withers [no age given] discuss the contributions of their fathers in media within the Civil Rights era. Rosalind recalls the imagery her father captured in the Emmett Till trial, the sanitation workers' strike, and her dedication to the preservation of an extensive collection of her father's work.

Subject Log / Time Code

EY shares early memories of Ernest Withers; describes one of his photographs; RW shares the number of images in her father's photography collection & describes a grant to preserve her father's work.
RW shares former mayor's background; EY shares about filming of the sanitation strikers archive; EY shares coverage of the James Early Ray trial; recalls time spent in trial with Judge Joe Brown; RW describes a burden in sharing her father's collection
EY talks about busing during the 70s; shares about being a racial minority in the community of Memphis.
RW shares about her background, siblings; shares her purpose in life; importance of her father's work; shares mother's role in the household; RW shares about a daily ritual of prayer to father's photo collection.
EY shares about Striking Voices - a project highlighting the sanitation workers and their families.


  • Emily Yellin
  • Rosalind Withers

Recording Location

National Civil Rights Museum

Venue / Recording Kit

Partnership Type

Fee for Service



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00:04 Who you want my age? Don't feel my age.

00:09 Hi, my name is Rosalind Withers. And today is March.

00:17 3rd 20/20 and we're located in Memphis Tennessee at the national Civil Rights Museum.

00:25 I have the honor and pleasure to sit down to have a lovely conversation with Miss Emily yelling and I'm honored to be able to have this dialogue because I think we have a lot in common, especially since our fathers have made great contributions to a human struggle, which is acceptable, right?

00:51 My name is Emily yellin. I am 58 years old today's date is March 3rd 2020 hour at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. And I am talking with Roz Withers and I guess our relationship is that both of our parents were very involved in the civil rights movement and we grew up at second generation of that. And yeah, I guess we're still involved in it, aren't we? Yes, that is very true. That's absolutely true. And it is funny because you said our fathers, but for me it was both of my parents really and I always want to give credit to the women and you know what I should do the same right? My mother was our rock. Yeah. She was the foundation of us being united. So I agree with you totally. Yeah, and and I think

01:49 It's interesting because our fathers knew each other and we have never actually really had a long conversation about tell me what you do know about it. I'll be interested in your father that the relation. Oh, well what I know will I also knew your father? Okay and would see him around when I came back a couple years after college and he was still working and I was working as a journalist. Okay, and I used to see him and he was always really kind of one time. He came up to me and he said I have a picture of you when you were a little girl at a civil rights meeting and I was like, I always wanted to see it and then a friend of mine years later found it and it was found. Yeah. It just hits me and my parents and James Lawson.

02:36 Okay, we have lots. We ride a lot of images of and I think it was more in the seventies. It was in the early seventies. I was I was maybe 12 or so and so James Lawson was one of my parents different than James and Dorothy Lawson. We're at our house all the time and I will I was actually in first grade with their son John their oldest son in 1968. So that's one connection. Well, that's that's in just me. I was going to say that we do have that image and we've made a lot of strides since my humble beginning of having to take on the responsibility.

03:21 Of preserving dad's work and when you say we tell me what you are referring to we is the family the family owns the asset the trust which is what my father put in place that allowed his work to be owned by the family. So it's a huge Archive of so it is all aspects kids with one. So what I want a million that's an estimate of his body of work. We say that again 1.8 million images of his body of work.

04:01 And it's been difficult when you are born with a heavy asset that has a lot of financial that has a lot of Need for financial structure to do the right thing with it. We've had many challenges but we've made a lot of accomplishments in digitizing his work. We did get a grant that allowed us to digitize the Civil Rights collection.

04:36 But you know along the way there is Ben, you know some some hiccups and just making sure that we have Consolidated all of his work dad's work was stored in many locations, you know at one time. It was stored at the University of Memphis. And before I was involved my brothers were working with my mother on helping the body of work be secured and they moved it and then moved and I found out from Tony Deaconess who was my dad's agent that it moved quite a few times prior to that and you know, I remember my dad telling me that your father used to come to him and ask for advice because my father was the head of the film and television department at the University and we were from New York. Originally. I was born in New York and we moved here in night.

05:36 64 when I was two and a half years old. And so I remember my father saying yeah, he had such amazing work but he struggled financially and still a stroke right and dad used to always say, you know, you're you're worth so much. You've got a you got to know your value and we do and honestly, it's interesting because we've I've worked for the last two years on a project that is phenomenal to really bring forward the work and make it available for education.

06:15 I was so blessed to connect with a person by the name of Courtney B Vance and Courtney has helped me to connect with the right people.

06:28 And we're in the process of developing the necessary product that will allow us to make his work available. That's great. And I'm excited about it because the he is the same person that developed the Getty system. Yes, the Getty Images. Oh, wow. Oh, yeah, you know he designed their system. Right and he is committed himself 3 years to design a nurse is so interesting because you know, both of our parents documented a lot of the struggle that was really a lot of I mean among many other things but my mother was a journalist. Okay, and as I said, my father headed up the film and television Department the university, but he had been a he written for magazines and as well and then my whole family my brothers and I have three brothers what we both have lots of Brothers.

07:28 It's enough. How about that? But it's a house full and my parents in 1968 realized that there was history being made around them and it wasn't being documented because they met my mother who had a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern undergraduate history too many moms. But yeah, and she recognized that if a hundred years from 1968 in 2068. That was what she said a hundred years from now, if people want to know what happened to Memphis during the sanitation strike, they're not going to know if all they have is the newspaper articles because half of the story wasn't being told right and it was totaled in a bias way back exactly. And so what they did was it was actually a couple of days after the assassination while the strike was still going on and it was I think April 11th,

08:28 The meeting in our living room and they started something called the Memphis search for meaning committee and it was named after Victor Frankel's book about the Holocaust Man's Search for meaning and they gather together all these people who were journalists or professors community members students and they ended up doing oral history that got a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the university gave them space the interview 250 people involved in the sanitation strike and the joke in our family was everybody from earlobe on up that is yes. I have photographic evidence to support our love was not at probably in both our houses. He was in our favorite person by no stretch.

09:28 So yeah, it was which is kind of interesting because you know, he actually positioned himself.

09:39 Differently than what his upbringing was. I know he went to Brown and he was Jewish which would make him very liberal. But he wanted other people to think that he was not to write and when I married a Christian woman, that's where his loyalties shift. It was under his wife's family's believe I am reserved that but yes, I did that and they also my father had the foresight in 1968. He knew all the news directors at the TV stations and they were going out every day and shooting film and so he went to all of the news directors and ask them to give him the film to preserve and so there's 24 hours of film of the sanitation strike all of the film taken during the sanitation unedited. Well, yeah some of its attitude but it's in everything that they had. Okay, so they would have thrown it away. This was all of the networks. Use. This was all of the local TV station TV stand so

10:39 They had a good yeah, and then even asked her where did he store that it's ever so isn't it? It's in the archive at the University of memphis's federal collections. Okay, and it's this amazing archive and everybody who's ever done anything about the Civil Rights Movement, you know, all of the Pulitzer Prize winners on Henry Hampton eyes on the price. They all would come to my house growing up because they had to meet my parents the grandmas amazing collection, right and they did also if there's a lot more to it but there's there's hundreds of Articles and then also they collected anecdotes. So like sick jokes people were telling in the grocery line like amazing stuff historian. They know it sounds like you've actually done some deep dive up with it, you know, sort of like you it was just all around me growing up and like I said, you know, I come home from school and there'd be Henry Hampton who's producing eyes on the prize or Taylor Branch or whatever.

11:39 Over you know, yeah and so my full circle moment is I ended up becoming a journalist and I moved back to Memphis in the mid-90s and James Earl Ray was trying to get a new trial and I was I had done one or two stringing jobs for the New York Times. And so it was happening in Memphis. They call me up at someone of their longtime reporters be Drummond The Heirs here cover the Civil Rights Movement. He came down to report on the first hearings. And then I mean in the James Earl Ray trial who did the mock trial that was before that was earlier. I wasn't here for that. This was the real trial all the real hearing with Judge Joe Brown quit room in all of this. I meant Joe Brown, that's why that wasn't a mock. That was that was hearing. That was that was real. Okay, those were hearings to get a new trial and okay. Yes. I did know that's why I actually have

12:39 The conversation with a Judge Joe Brown. I made him famous. We wrote this article in the New York Times and that's what got him his show. Yeah. But anyway, so I was covering that I started coming at so this reporter comes down and you know, I'm 32 or something and he comes down and we text me out to dinner before the hearing the first day of snow and ice. I just drove to the my God. Yeah. I've been covering this since 68 and he was like what and the story was that meeting in my parents house. I was six years old and I begged my mother to be at this meeting and she said I can't have a six-year-old in this meeting, you know, you know, but apparently she told me I beg so hard that she let me do it and she said the rules were I couldn't say one word. I had to listen and to give me a job. She said I could be the secretary and take notes. So apparently I sat in the whole meeting and it's after work.

13:39 She looked at my notes and you know what? They said. We had a meeting.

13:45 So I told him that I said, so I've been covering the 668 cuz you know, that's that's I took notes and I reported what happened. Right just a journalism. It is beautiful and it was appointed based on what they were covering. That's beautiful. So really, I think we both grew up with this all around us. Yes, and you mentioned a word that it's interesting because in some ways I don't use this word but I understand but it's a burden on some level. It is a burden because when you don't have what you need when you know what you need to do and you don't have the resources to get them done. It is a burden but you know things are changing for us.

14:38 And it took awhile to get there a lot of a lot of it has to do with just

14:47 Memphis, you know having

14:52 Not all embracing of what this is. What what what what is what 1.8 million images of our history is and you know, I've been recognized that too because the work my parents do people do not understand what it what a treasure Trove it is. What a cultural I mean to have a moment in history both your father and my parents documenting a moment in history so fully and from the ground level and as a participant really because they were both living here, right? You know, we weren't just people who came in and did it and left yet. And that's one of the contributions that my father made it because he was a photojournalist right? And in his own, right, you know, he didn't take it very lightly with you cover the Emmett Till killed for I know that he did a self-published book on the Emmett Till trial one of the paragraphs that I continually read.

15:52 When I'm discouraged is that it states that this publication that he had put together was a booklet that was $1 and that booklet was something that he chose to take on as an individual project. It was not supported by any organization or anything. It was a individual contribution to record the history so that an injustice that occurred like that need not occur again, that's what it's quoted in his preface. And when I read that automatically lets me know that in 1955 for my father to have written that

16:36 He knew exactly what his role was and it didn't just start there. It was just a a pivotal point that continue in escalated all the way through 68 and all the way to the end of his life. That's interesting because I've been I've been thinking a lot about this and you know, one thing that that sounds like I can relate to is the idea that you start out doing this and maybe you cover one thing as a rider analyst, you know, you'll cover one thing and it deeply affects you because you know as much as you try to be objective as a journalist, you're a human being all the way back for you and then you keep going and you don't even know what you've gotten yourself into and I think that I can see that with my parents and I bet you can see that with your parents, you know is that it's like they couldn't not do it. Yeah, you know what I mean? And you know what?

17:33 The thing that I appreciate about him was that he displayed a measure of courage and that courage that he displayed.

17:45 Also made it possible for us to have the record because so often it is stated that you know, we don't have this in our history books at this material is not here or is not available there and I'm you know, as we sit in this room with all these Publications and books.

18:07 You know, it's so important to make the imagery.

18:12 Available because these are snapshot moments in time that will never be repeated again and you can't reenact them to the point that you bring all of those elements together at the same time. Exactly. And you know, that's I think the genius and her way of what our parents did because both of them really did recognize this was a moment and it needs to be fully documented and to me that's kind of that's that's something again that I grew up with and didn't even know it but when I look at my work, you know, I ended up with when I started writing for the New York Times. I started that soon after I came back to Memphis after being all over the world the first 10 years of my adulthood 15 and then I came back here and I was just going to be here for a little while and that was 20-something years ago. But but I think I started writing for the New York Times in the bureau chief in Atlanta.

19:12 Name is Kevin Sachi still there and he said to me when you write about the times about the south for the New York Times. I'll say that again when you write about the south or the New York Times you're writing about race and change and one of the biggest stories that I did. It was a front page story. Most words. I got was all this was in the nine late 90s and it was about all of the Civil Rights murders that hadn't been properly, you know prosecuted and finding all of those horrible men, you know who killed people and they I went to Birmingham and the four little girls and Philadelphia Mississippi and all of those and actually our family that's part of my family story. We moved here in 1964. My father is Jewish. My mother was Presbyterian they married that was actually very scandalous when they married. I can imagine. No, especially in that time frame and my father is

20:12 First generation American my grandparents came here from Poland. They escaped pogroms in colon. And so for my father and mother to move down here in 1964 was actually a pretty courageous thing, you know and its own stuff for coming from New York and the the joke which again, I always refer to jokes cuz I think that's how we get through some of these things. Right but that one of their friends in New York when they said they were moving to Memphis in 1964 said Memphis that's kind of like joining the Peace Corps, but you don't have to leave the country is funny. I mean you have to laugh at the reality. I realize was that what we got here three weeks after Goodman schwerner in Chinese bodies were found. Wow and Goodman and schwerner were Jews from New York and so is my dad, you know, so they have to get home and we were taught growing up that you do.

21:12 Not go to Mississippi that they kill people like us they do right? They were you taught that. Yes, and that's so interesting cuz I'm white but I was taught that and we were not we were not welcomed here at all. You know, we were seen as outside agitators. I remember hearing that my whole life. Yeah. I'm so it's up to the great interesting because I you know, if to meet me, I'm a white girl and I grew up in East Memphis, right when busing started in the early 70s was 73-72. I do this to the bus when busting started in the seventies. Yeah. I was in sixth grade and then in

22:12 Seventh grade. I was supposed to go to White Station. I was at campus school, which is the University Elementary School. And then White Station was in East Campus. Yes, because my University of Memphis, right? I was with my dad was a professor in that. This was just going to finish that thought real quick. I went to Sherwood Junior High instead of to White Station while my brothers are gone. And in one year Sherwood was behind our house in one year. It went from being an all-white school, which wasn't we weren't in that one year of busting it became 75% black cuz all of those white people went to the Christian Schools. Yeah, they left because of the bus in my parents can be in and so I had an experience of being in a racial minority, which most people from my background. Have I ever

23:12 Experience and that just saved my life. Oh, okay. It really did because I had grown up in the Civil Rights household, you know, so coming over for dinner. We're the Kyle's is or the willises or Lawson 3 axis, you know, my father started the show in 1968 on Channel 5 called 40% speak and he produced it. He went to the general manager of Channel 5 NBC affiliate and said you don't have any black people on television talking about issues and produced it and James Lawson had one week and then hooks had a second week and they alternated and so in the wake of the strike in the assassination, they did a show on television. It was the first time that African-Americans had a choice in in in open media sites. Yeah. It's really interesting the fact that our parents both really whatever it is. You are late to our history.

24:12 Right into making sure that voices were heard and images were seen and yes moments were captured right as that's very true as a yes.

24:24 Can you describe some of that? Okay, I am the only girl of Dorothy and Ernest Withers. They had seven boys and growing up in that household was quite interesting cuz I'm the last of the litter.

24:42 I always thought that my purpose in life was to be that and that was it up Corsa fast forward in this adult life.

24:55 I have a totally new perspective of my purpose in life and that is to preserved as work and make it available for educational purposes.

25:07 I'm very committed and dedicated to two things the preservation.

25:15 And the education and education is so important because when we look at our history or when we look at what he recorded.

25:30 It gives young people a sense of purpose belonging and the when you have the imagery, which is what are used to live by today. I mean every every child carries and Ice a child a cell phone and one of the most dominant features of that phone is to take a picture so they come with that.

25:59 Intuitiveness of what photography really is and how much more so with the meaning of Photography in while we have 60 years of History to be able to have access to that when it wasn't so accessible. I want to yeah. Yeah, it is amazing. It's it is I can't take it lightly cuz you recognize there's no way he knew all that was going to happen in the future and it was going to be so valuable, but he was working on a principle that was deeper than that, right. He was working on and it was in his slogan pictures tell the store and there was so many stories that weren't told.

26:42 The story of Emmett Till would never been told without the presence of imagery. We could have vocalized it but it was those pictures that hit the front pages and sparked World cross the globe that added that dimension of recognizing that this was an injustice that visual imagery and that's that's what we have. We have we have such a body of that to share. It makes me think of I've heard that when the Holocaust when the war was over and people went to the concentration camps somebody I don't remember who but then we have to take pictures and they did we have to adapt and that it happens and it's the imagery that we see that that we know it's it is Undisputed. So I want to go back to something though. You said you were the youngest of seven and I was the youngest girl and the only girl also and I had three

27:42 Brothers, but what I wanted to go back. Yeah, we do we do we do have time will my mom number one. I actually I have kind of a dual thing. I my mom didn't allow me to be spoiled being in the household Seven Brothers. She had a lot of feeding to do in which meant that she was always in the kitchen cooking and that was one of the chores that I must learn how to do in to this day. Your brother brothers have to learn to cook know they had other chores but the the disadvantages that they got to share their chores 7 x rotation, but I had no rotation other than my mom says getting up and get this kitchen clean or cook this meal with it came a little bit later cleaning was there from the very beginning my mom made all of us cook and clean and I doubt she said I am not going to raise boys who don't know how to cook cuz my dad didn't know how to cook and she said I'm not going to do that. And so it's great cuz now

28:42 My brother is a really good cook, but that's really good. Well, my mom felt that that was the role on civility of of the woman. What decade did you grow up in? Well, we're in the same age said I'm a couple years older. Okay few years since a couple but a few years older than you are as I don't like talking about. I know you don't I know you don't I'm trying to but it's okay. I mean, I'm curious. I'm embracing it now that I've passed 6 tomorrow. Okay. Okay. I'm not quite there. But it's it's it's it's Incredible 2 to be able to clearly understand what must be done with dad's work and that's one of the things that I am very thankful for because I do have a daily prayer that that I asked for in dealing with my father's work and it is wisdom.

29:38 And at the same time I'll always ask for humility humility because it is so easy to get wrapped wrapped into who he was and what he did and lose track of the importance of the preservation of what we have what he left behind his legacy. Yeah. It's easy to do that and I try and you know, you don't you don't really see me unless I have to be in public places. It's just my you know decision not to do that because I know that there's so much work to be done. My story will be told when I'm gone and that's how I see that.

30:20 So what about now? Like what are you feel your legacy. Well, my legacy will be to do the right thing with the preservation of this body of work and making the right decisions to number one not have my family lose. What belongs to them.

30:47 Because there is a lot of my dad's work that has been lost lost to its identity of it belonging to him.

30:57 And a lot of times people have the misconception that we want to get his work to bring some type of finger pointing North, you know, or saying that you know, there was an abuse taken place. That's not what we want. I will I do remember my father saying that your father had not been treated right? Yes. I remember him talking about and how they would have conversations about that and that and and he

31:27 I remember my father being angry and I remember my father also my business who my father was, you know me pushing your father pushing your father too kind of, you know, he's your father if I remember correctly and I don't know but he was sort of mild-mannered he was because he is he that good for a photography art was in his work exactly and his ability to be able to do what I'm trying to accomplish with his work that skill-set was not within him and there were frightful. That's actually that now that you're saying that that's what I remember. My father said, yeah, the he's a great photographer but the business that he doesn't he doesn't and you know, that's actually one of the the thing one of the things that I have to come back and pay attention to once we've established the foundation structure of it moving forward because there's a

32:27 How to clean up that must be done behind his work and you know, it's not like I said, it's not that we want people to to pay some penalty. No, we don't want that. We want that its rightful.

32:43 Recognition that this is his work in connection to what he's done and that's it. And that's honestly what my father would always say, you know, he would always stay among us, but he didn't want his living to be in vain or he didn't want people to take his work that he himself did and then and then that has happened has happened the laden and I don't spend a lot of time focusing on that because had I had I spent a lot of time focusing on that then I would have lost traction on the preservation and that's something that can always come back to is kind of like once you have the material there is, you know, the footprint of it you can't erase that so that can be corrected with time. I understand that because what I've done I have my own work and then my brother is a documentary producer in New York, and he actually what's your brother's name Tom yelling, but he produced in

33:43 A thing about the sanitation strike that won an Emmy Award on ABC News and okay and that was my parents. My father was still alive and my mother died right before it aired and they they dedicated it to her on-air know. Do you know the idea of growing up in this kind of household and having a sense of there's there's there's burden in Legacy. I will definitely it is but what I recognized was the missing piece in my parents work was at the time in 1968. Nobody interviewed the sanitation workers much because you could that would have been very hard very tight. Well, it's Tabu, but they aren't going to talk because they're working and they're having to keep their jobs. And so they're not going to tell you things right I got they don't want to lose their jobs. Yeah, that is very true. And so I interviewed one of the first first times I did that was in 1998 for the 30th Anniversary. The Kyle's is actually High.

34:43 Me to write the story of the strike was sheet date. So I interviewed to sanitation workers at the time. And that's when I realized that they have not there is there story has not been documented. And so for the last 20 years, that's what I've been doing. Okay, and I just I'm in for the 2018. I produced I started a nonprofit called striking voices and we've interviewed 30 sanitation workers surviving sanitation workers their wives and their children. Yes. I remember the exhibition that took place at the hooks Museum library library. Yeah, and that's what we did here when I saw that I was like wonder why she never called me. I said that to myself. Oh, well, we we actually the library exhibit just kind of happened but

35:43 We did altimate Lee was we produced 10 part video series called 1300 men and it ran on the root.com. It has a African-American oocyte and it's gotten 7.3 million views though. That's beautiful. And so what we did with the way we set it up with we had interview sort of similar to this but video and we had people come in and we interview the men and their wives and their children because I knew that having grown up in this but even if they were six years old, they had to stay out of town and they knew going on and so it was funny because we did one about the wives and that that one of the ten got the most views all on its own. Wow. I think it's really so important to do that. So that is that's it for very perceptive of you to be able to capture Beyond just the front line, right? And what was so interesting about that is exactly what we're talkin about which is the idea.

36:43 That there are stories to be told that haven't been told and documenting as you go which is really what my parents did because doing an oral history. They started a month after the assassination and most oral histories are done 30 years at least later than us to know and help people learn their memories are foggy. Whatever. This is this this thing that they did has just been something for me. Also. I mean I go to the university and go through those archives and all of the folders are labeled with my mother's handwriting and she died 20 years ago. And so it's a real father. My father died about 18 years ago. Okay, you know, but she was really the archivist in a lot of ways and she logged all the video she did a video log it was film and it still is and then they in the 80s they got it transferred to video and she went and did this log which is amazing. And so I'm real.

37:43 Conscious from where I grew up with and I'm assuming you are too I'll definitely of the importance of making sure that you document things and making accurate, you know, exactly the log she tells not just who speaking but what the context is and what their title is and how you spell their name, you know, so to have like to contribute to the sanitation peace when you heard about it. Well, I just think there is a lot of imagery that was that would have definitely been a contribution. I think the person that you had worked with was Copley and he he was I don't know I just didn't I wasn't as familiar with his work for him. He was a video person actually and so we hired him because he had the you know that knowledge, but

38:43 Good just taking a couple of pictures at the time but we we weren't honestly we weren't as concerned with the photos as we were with the video the Orwell know the video and so we had those the video from the past but then the video that we were taking now if the people talkin was really our focus and so we used some photos when we had to but it was really about the voices void by the thing was called striking voices. That's how you know, and it's interesting because I was I was intrigued by it and the exhibition just brought more questions in and when I spoke to dwana Kyle's cuz she I think she and I were together when we went up to take a look at it and she told me that she knew you and the exhibition was the portraits. We took of the men in their children and their wives I woke up right after we interviewed him similar to this we interviewed them and then we took these portraits of them.

39:43 And the whole point of that was you know, this is ridiculous that you have to do but to humanize because that whole experience was about being dehumanized and and in a lot of what took place during that time right is what that real struggle was about and we were trying really hard to make sure that the I am an idea. Yeah went much deeper than it usually does and I think that's what your body your dad's body of work was about to yeah, that was just a portion of his work really understand the override. Yeah. Well, that's what the world recognizes him for is that the iconic image and you know, he has contributions and in music and and also in early baseball, I'm talking about his body to body of work that whole body I work is about that. So hopefully in the future

40:43 Will be able to make it available. That's our goal right acts that is so give everyone access and we have the master to do it.