THE HISTORY OF I AM A MAN:
On Feb. 1, 1968, the rain was torrential, flooding streets, overflowing sewers. Still, the Memphis public works department required its sanitation workers (all black men) to continue to work. That day, 2 sanitation workers, Echol Cole & Robert Walker, took shelter from the rain in the back of their garbage truck. As Cole & Walker rode in the back of the truck, an electrical switch malfunctioned. The compactor turned on & they were crushed by compactor. The public works dept. refused to compensate their families. 11 days after their deaths, 1,300 black sanitation workers walked off the job, protesting horrible working conditions, abuse, racism & discrimination. Most of them made 65 cents per hour, no overtime, no paid sick leave.
The strike would win the support of Martin Luther King Jr. & lead to his assassination less than 2 months later. “The signs we were carrying said ‘I Am a Man,’ ” James Douglas, a sanitation worker, recalled, “And we were going to demand to have the same dignity & the same courtesy any other citizen of Memphis has.”
On March 18, King spoke to more than 25,000 people in Memphis: “You are here tonight to demand that Memphis do something about the conditions that our brothers face, as they work day in & day out for the well-being of the total community. You are here to demand that Memphis will see the poor.”
On March 28, King led another march. But it turned violent when demonstrators who called themselves “the Invaders” threw objects at the protestors. King’s men pulled him out of the march before police fatally shot a 16-year-old protester. Police chased protestors who took shelter at Clayborn Temple church, & threw tear gas inside the sanctuary, where they continued to beat demonstrators with billy clubs as they fell to the floor to escape the tear gas. The next day, more than 200 sanitation workers marched, carrying signs “I Am a Man.”
Across the country, media erroneously blamed King for the violence, but he decided to return to Memphis to continue to support the strike. On April 3rd, he delivered his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, foreshadowing his impending death. The next day he was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.
Heartbreaking how much we are still fighting and how the same tactics and propaganda are once again being used to derail the cause. Violence incited not by the protestors peacefully seeking justice, but by the very oppressors resigned to strip black men of their dignity.