Why you should care
Because movements iterate too.
Conditions for the city’s Black sanitation workers were difficult to the point of deadly. Memphis was paying full-time employees a meager minimum wage, then just $1.60 an hour. But it wasn’t until two men died on the job in February 1968 that protests broke out, with hundreds of sanitation workers taking to the streets to demand their right to unionize.
Most remember the 1968 strike because it drew Martin Luther King Jr. to the hotel balcony where he was assassinated. But the protesters’ picket signs have their own place in history. “I am a man,” the signs said. Not a boy. Not a garbage collector or sanitation worker. A man.
That Black man on his knees, imploring someone to recognize his dignity, became a symbol of the emancipation movement.
The slogan, a precursor to today’s more PC, gender-neutral “Black lives matter,” dates back long before the civil rights movement. In the 1780s, the British Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade created a seal that showed a slave kneeling with a banner above him that read: “Am I not a man and a brother?” That illustration of a Black man on his knees, presumably imploring someone to recognize his dignity, became a symbol of the emancipation movement. Almost 200 years later, Black men were free on paper but still bound by racism, thwarted in their attempts to achieve the societal markers that “made you a man” back then. A man was the head of his household, the breadwinner and the political voice. But “under Jim Crow, they did everything they could to make Blacks less than, unworthy,” says Gerald Horne, a history professor at the University of Houston. By the late 1960s, the time for asking was over. The refrain became a statement: “I am a man.”
Even then, in the throes of the feminist movement, the civil rights struggle remained largely man-centric. “Black protests have always been gendered male,” says Noliwe Rooks, director of graduate studies at the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. Yet women embraced the principle because in many ways it represented Black freedom, and some believed the man’s plight carried signal importance. If a husband couldn’t make a living wage, the thinking went, then the whole family starved. Even today the focus is on getting Black men off the streets and out of prison, as if that would solve everything, Rooks says: “It’s a trickle-down theory of support.”
Back in Memphis, the garbage piled up as the strike raged on for nearly two months, with daily marches and hundreds of arrests. When police shot and killed a 16-year-old male on March 28, the National Guard moved in. Then, on April 4, James Earl Ray assassinated King a day after he gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. But even after King’s death, the mayor refused to recognize the workers’ union. It wasn’t until President Johnson and the U.S. Department of Labor intervened that the Memphis City Council agreed to a union contract with AFSCME Local 1733 on April 16. What began with sanitation workers has since grown into one of the largest unions nationwide. And the strike is now looked back upon as a milestone.
That struggle is not over, of course. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Kentucky Congressman Geoff Davis referred to Barack Obama, saying “that boy’s finger does not need to be on the button.” (Davis almost instantly responded with a letter of apology, calling it a “poor choice of words.”) Minimum wages mostly haven’t kept up with the cost of living. And then there are the repeated shootings of unarmed Black men that birthed today’s civil rights slogan: “Black lives matter.” It’s kind of an iteration of “I am a man,” and it took form after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Since then it’s been tethered to other deaths, including those of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner. The movement’s website explains that unlike its predecessor, “Black lives matter” includes “all Black lives along the gender spectrum.” From men to women, and picket signs to hashtags, today’s slogan has roots in a timeless struggle.