1968 was undoubtedly an unforgettable year in not only American history, but worldwide history. I am sure you have heard of some of the events in this year before. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, OJ Simpson won the Heisman trophy, Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman in the House, etc. One of the events that people may not be as familiar with is the Memphis Workers Sanitation Strike. On February 12th, 1968, Memphis sanitation workers, primarily African Americans, went on strike. The strikers demanded recognition for their union, better wages and safer working conditions. This was after two trash handlers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were killed by a garbage truck that did not function correctly. The mayor of Memphis refused to negotiate so, going through March, the strike gained national attention. The posters the strikers carried read “I AM A MAN,” and hence began the movement.
Over 100 years previous to this strike, slave abolitionists posed the question “Am I not a man and a brother?” This is where the strike’s slogan came from. The US Constitution states that ALL men are created equal and are entitled to certain inalienable rights. Slaves were denied these rights, and African Americans continued to be denied these rights even after slavery during the time of Jim Crow. Notice that the word “am” in this poster is underlined. This emphasizes that the issue is no longer a question, “Am I not a man and a brother,” but rather an affirmative statement. Also, the words are in black letters and in all uppercase letters so that you cannot miss the sign or misread it.
On April 3rd, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. joined the cause. He previously spoke in late March and returned on April 3rd, to deliver one of his most famous speeches: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” The crowd in late March consisted of about 6,000 people, and many more were present on April 3rd. Here, King put great emphasis on the topic, declaring “The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee—the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’” The next night, on April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. This was one day before a massive rally was planned, likely to be where the people were “rising up.” Four days later on April 8, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, led about 20,000 marchers through the streets of Memphis. The marchers carried a poster reading “HONOR KING: END RACISM!” The poster had the same design as the “I am a Man” poster. On April 16th, the strike ended with the city of Memphis agreeing to union recognition and raises. (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)
The strike led by the sanitation workers lasted for nearly two months. The fact that they went that long without pay emphasizes how bad heir working conditions were. They would rather be without money and free than held in bondage under those working conditions for pay. Is there anything going on today that you would be willing to strike that long for?
Let’s look back at the “I Am A Man” poster as a sight of memory. It is a very simple poster which I believe reflects the simplicity of the workers’ demands. They were not asking for some form of extravagant living, but rather just the rights that they are entitled to. The poster is in black and white, the most contrasting colors. At the time, blacks and whites were also very contrasting. It was apparent in their treatment. Of course they were clearly separated during slavery and segregation, but what about the hidden racism still present today? It may not be as obvious, but racism is definitely still present. Hence, the legacy of this poster lives on and is still relevant today.
The above picture is an exhibit in the Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The designation of this gallery is significant because it is where the striking occurred. Holding it at the museum in the motel where Martin Luther King was shot is significant of King’s close association with the event. Near this exhibit in the museum, there are videos of James Lawson and T.O. Jones, “who courageously waged the battle on behalf of striking sanitation workers.” The strikers along with the malfunctioning garbage truck are displayed in the original exhibition here. There is a film showing the sanitation strike displayed on the garbage truck. A new edition to this exhibit is the Mountaintop Theatre showing King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. This was King’s last speech before he died. (National Civil Rights Museum) Because of the location and the close associations of this exhibit, the legacy of this strike and King lives on together. There is a bit of distortion when considering that the strikers were working hard with the protests before King arrived, and now King is being remembered with them. However, because these were King’s final days and the fact that he was in Memphis for this occasion makes this sight memorable.
- “The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.” Civil Rights Posters, 1968 | Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, www.gilderlehrman.org/content/civil-rights-posters-1968.
- “At the Lorraine Motel.” National Civil Rights Museum, civilrightsmuseum.org/i-am-a-man.
- “Remembering the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike.” Afro, afro.com/remembering-the-1968-memphis-sanitation-workers-strike-part2/.