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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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Selma to Montgomery March, 1965

“On the Selma to Montgomery March, March 21-25, 1965,” by James Karales. From The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68.

In 1961, less than one percent of black Americans were registered to vote in Dallas County, Alabama. In 1963, organizers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began to rally support for a voter-registration project, and because of their efforts they were attacked and almost killed by the Ku Klux Klan. Despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned racial discrimination in voting rights, the Dallas County sheriff—along with what Steven Kasher describes as the “volunteer posse of over a hundred men…carrying guns, whips, clubs, and electric cattle prods”—used cruel harassment and violence to break up meetings and to deter any blacks attempting to register to vote.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Selma, Alabama on January 2, 1965, the office for voter registration was open a scant two days per month, and the few blacks who were able to arrive to register were given a lengthy battery of tests and paperwork. At a mass meeting on voting rights, King addressed the crowd:

At the rate they are letting us register now it will take a hundred and three years to register all of the fifteen thousand Negroes in Dallas County who are qualified to vote. . . . But we don’t have that long to wait. . . . Today marks the beginning of a determined, organized, mobilized campaign to get the right to vote everywhere in Alabama. . . . Our cry to the State of Alabama is a simple one: Give us the ballot. . . . We are not on our knees begging for the ballot. We are demanding the ballot.

Steven Kasher, the author of The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68, published by Abbeville Press, details the history of the Alabama Project to protect federal voting rights, and showcases some of the most emotionally affecting photographs from the three attempts to march from Selma to Alabama’s capitol, Montgomery. The first two marches were stopped by brutal acts of police violence, but that did not stop the resolve of the brave citizens determined to secure and protect voting rights for all Americans. The third and final march, from March 21-25, 1965, was a success: the Voting Rights Act was put into law on August 6, 1965, and, as Kasher affirms: “Southern politics was radically changed.”

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To celebrate Black History Month, we’re offering a discount on The Civil Rights Movement. Click here and use code CIVIL RIGHTS 2013 at checkout to reduce the price to $25, a savings of over 40% on the list price. Please be sure to click the “redeem coupon” button after you enter code CIVIL RIGHTS 2013 to apply your discount. The code is valid through February 28th.