“I Am a Man”

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.

“I Am A Man” gallery at the Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel
Local minister and community activist James Lawson. Elmore Nickleberry (Afro)

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.

Works Cited

  1. “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.
  2. “At the Lorraine Motel.” National Civil Rights Museum, civilrightsmuseum.org/i-am-a-man.
  3. “Remembering the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike.” Afro, afro.com/remembering-the-1968-memphis-sanitation-workers-strike-part2/.

7 thoughts on ““I Am a Man””

  1. I like your post, which covers different periods of African-American history through the slogan, “I am a man.” The address of the audience as “you” made it more inclusive. However, I was a bit confused when you wrote that MLK joined the cause on April 3; if he had spoken for them in March, wouldn’t he have joined the fight earlier?

  2. I like the fact that there were several visual elements to aid your discussion of the “I am a man.” slogan. Your analysis of the font, contrasts, lines detail the purpose of the protests well. It is interesting that you link MLK with the sanitation strike in the end, however I think you should be a little bit more specific with what you mean by “close associations.”

  3. I enjoyed how the way you formatted your site in a way that it not only presents information to the reader but also actively engages them. I think that is appropriate here considering that it constantly asks us to interpret the site as we go along. I also found it insightful how you mentioned that the slogan has been changed so that it is no longer a question, but is rather affirmative. It is interesting how wording can really change the way something is interpreted, which I think is something we fail to recognize throughout history. The reason why so many things are contested is that we fail to provide context or we overexplain or oversimplify or we word something a certain way that is vague enough to become distorted. However, I would have liked to see how this slogan would have been applicable to other movements today– for example, the Black Lives Matter movement.

  4. I think this piece did a good job at allowing our own memory to be included by asking us “Is there anything going on today that you would be willing to strike that long for?” I think this allowed this site of memory to become usable in the sense that it allowed me to think about things that are extremely important to me that I may strike for. In other words, it used this exact experience to invoke in me and others a question as to whether there are things that important to them that they would strike for it. In addition, I loved the inclusion of MLK saying that regardless of where people are they cry “we want to be free.” I thought drawing upon this quote allowed people to see the universality of memory. MLK may have said this quote years ago but it still resonates with us today despite where we may live. The universality of this quote also makes me wonder about the processual memory of this quote and how it may be used to help different groups gain freedom that they are still not granted.

  5. An engaging yet professional post! I like how to relate all the details to your own thoughts. For example, the simplicity of I AM A MAN slogan reflected a humble wish to work in a satisfied condition. Also, you mentioned the underlined am, which could be interpreted as being a current issue not past. One thing I’d enjoyed reading is that you incorporated MLK in a cohesive and coherent way instead of just diving right in by the assassination.

  6. Creating the “I Am a Man” slogan out of the question posed by slave abolitionists, “Am I not a man and a brother?” is really powerful, and demonstrates how this was usable for the sanitation workers. Your use of the word bondage when describing the working conditions for the sanitation workers also echoes the horrendous conditions endured by those in the bondage of slavery. I also thought it was interesting that you pointed out how the narrative is somewhat distorted by King’s participation and in some ways, is selective in forgetting the work done before his involvement. Very informative and thought-provoking post!

  7. I like how you introduced the initial topic of your post by starting off with some rhetorical statements/questions. I think you really broke down the meaning of the words “I Am A Man” in a very powerful way. I also like how you added both recent and past photos of people holding up the sign which shows that the movement is still going on today.

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