I Am a Man

“But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr. April 3, 1968

It has been said that symbols are the language of the soul and photographs are worth a 1,000 words.  Today, the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and nearly 45 years since his assassination in my hometown, I reflect on a powerful picture from that volatile year – 1968 – that claimed the lives of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy just two months apart.  A photograph that influences my passion for the arts and demonstrates the arts’ ability to ignite social change.

By April 1968, Memphis was mired in a fractious sanitation workers strike.  In February, nearly 1,300 African-American sanitation workers walked off the job in protest of discrimination, dangerous working conditions and the preventable on-the-job deaths of two of their own. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had traveled to the city many times during the strike, speaking at a March 18th rally attended by 15,000 people and leading a march on March 29th that led to the death of Larry Payne when, much to Dr. King’s chagrin, violence erupted.  Four-thousand National Guardsmen descended on the city to restore order and prevent further outbreaks of violence.

Dr. King returned to the city on April 3rd to lead a nonviolent protest.  That evening he gave his final, famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech before being shot the next evening outside the Lorraine Motel (now the National Civil Rights Museum) in downtown Memphis.

Throughout the strike, the sanitation workers held signs that read “I Am a Man.”  If you have ever seen this image of a group of men – African-American men – declaring their humanity, their rights, their dignity, you will never forget it.  In fact, this photograph became a rallying cry across the United States, a symbol for freedom.  Two weeks after Dr. King’s assassination, the strike was settled.

Photo Credit: Richard L. Copley

Less than 45 years ago, my birth city was a lightning rod for the civil rights movement, a place where men had to demand recognition for their equality and their rights to safety, fair wages and a chance to make a living.  And the city where Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his final dream…

“…We are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it.  Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace.  But now, no longer can they just talk about it.  It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today…We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. 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.”

— Martin Luther King, Jr. in his final speech delivered April 3, 1968 in Memphis

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