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As 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination nears, Memphis students reenact a famous scene from 1968

Third- and fourth-graders at Vision Preparatory Charter School re-enact Ernest C. Withers' famous photograph of striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968.
Third- and fourth-graders at Vision Preparatory Charter School re-enact Ernest C. Withers' famous photograph of striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968.
Tom Benton/Vision Prep

Students in Memphis are learning about civil rights history through powerful black-and-white images taken by one of the city’s most famous photographers — and by reenacting one of its most iconic moments.

The Withers Collection Museum and Gallery is among the stops of school groups studying their city’s history this school year in conjunction with MLK50. The yearlong remembrance of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. will end on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights leader’s assassination next April 4.

The Beale Street gallery showcases the work of the late Ernest C. Withers, a freelance photographer whose images captured the segregated South, the civil rights movement and the Beale Street music scene, among other things. The gallery’s “Pictures Tell the Story Campaign” allows students to re-enact Withers’ 1968 photograph of striking sanitation workers holding “I AM A MAN” placards during the last march led by King before his death.

“For kids to hold up that sign, it’s a wonderful hands-on experience and a jumping-off point to learn about Dr. King,” said Tom Benton, director of Vision Preparatory Charter School, which recently brought more than a hundred third- and fourth-graders to tour the gallery and participate in a professional photo shoot.

Vision Prep lies just south of downtown Memphis and is among the city’s closest elementary schools to the Lorraine Motel, where King was shot and which now houses the National Civil Rights Museum. The gallery tour kicked off a year of special studies for the school’s students about King and the civil rights movement.

“Our students were completely captivated by the black-and-white pictures,” Benton said of the collection.

Vision Prep students tour the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery on Beale Street.
Vision Prep students tour the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery on Beale Street.
Tom Benton/Vision Prep

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