I Am A Man

“Sanitation Workers Assembling for a Solidarity March, Memphis, March 28, 1968,” by Ernest Withers. From The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68.

Just one week before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. led 5,000 sanitation workers on this march on city hall in Memphis, Tennessee, as part of a strike in response to discrimination, low wages, the city’s refusal to recognize the workers’ union, and the death of two workers in a garbage packer, whose families’ received no worker’s compensation. In his captivating book, The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68, published by Abbeville Press, Steven Kasher recounts how photographer Ernest Withers helped to cut the sticks for the men’s placards, and he also recounts their significance:

With those men, when you say [union] ‘recognition,’ that means ‘We are being recognized.’ This is why they wore the sign ‘I AM A MAN.’

Kasher also describes the difficulties King faced in the aftermath of the event because of violence that broke out among young men during the march. Police response was extreme, and an officer shot and killed a sixteen-year-old boy; King was rushed away from the scene in distress at the violence. In response to the media’s criticism of his involvement in the march (the New York Times called it “a powerful embarrassment” and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat called Dr. King “one of the most menacing men in America today”), King had planned another march, better-organized so as to prevent any violent outbreak, for April 8, which he would not live to lead. King was dedicated to nonviolence, and on April 3, the day before his death, he addressed a meeting at Mason Temple in Memphis with haunting and inspirational words:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. . . . And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.


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