News

I AM A MAN

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | October 22, 2011

"No human trait deserves less tolerance in everyday life, and gets less, than intolerance."
Giacomo Leopardi

I had about a two (2) hour layover in the Memphis, TN airport and I was hurrying from Terminal C to Terminal A. The gift shops were bulging with Elvis trinkets and memorabilia. From replicas of Graceland to CDs of "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Jailhouse Rock," it was obvious everywhere "The King" had impacted the culture of this riverboat city. 

Out of the corner of my eye along a less than prominent wall I noticed a display of black and white photographs by Ernest C. Withers, one of the most significant photographers of the Civil Rights Movement. One picture stood out to me but after pausing for about five (5) minutes I was on my way. 

A short while later I noticed along another wall an art display prepared by local school children to depict the community's music, sights and sounds as part of a contest to help them value and appreciate the Mid-South's heritage and what makes Memphis memorable. Here were some of their best works of art. 

There on the wall I saw a painting by Kaylyn Harris from the Bartlett High School which literally stopped me in my tracks. With a blue background, these bold large letters were painted: I AM A MAN. 

I recognized the words from the photograph by Ernest C. Withers, the one which stood out to me moments before. 

I hurried back and looked at the photograph more closely. The caption underneath it says, "Sanitation Workers Strike; Memphis: March 28, 1968." The frame is filled with sanitation workers holding placards which all say the same thing: I AM A MAN. 

The Memphis Sanitation Strike began on February 11, 1968. Citing years of poor treatment, discrimination, dangerous working conditions, and the recent work-related deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, some 1,300 black sanitation workers walked off the job in protest. They wanted to join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) local 1733. 

Over the next 64 days the strike grew into a major civil rights struggle, attracting the attention of the national news media. Their demands included union recognition, wage increases, and an end to discrimination. Local clergy and community leaders joined, and prior to his death on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. also took an active role in mass meetings and street actions. The strike ended on April 12, 1968 with a settlement that included union recognition and wage increases, although additional strikes had to be threatened for the City of Memphis to honor its agreements. 

I can't get that picture out of my head and I don't think I want to. It is hard for me to comprehend as a Caucasian in Pennsylvania who was in my late teens and early twenties when all of that was happening across the south, including Memphis, all of us only get one life and to live under such conditions in American just hardly seems possible. But it was. 

I AM A MAN. What courage it took to get the wood and cardboard to make those signs. What courage it took not to go to work for 64 days - from February 11 through April 12, 1968. What courage it took to stand there holding those signs side by side and shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart. What courage it took to believe in a cause and to place yourself and your family at risk to change the way things were for the way things should be. 

I AM A MAN. Yes, those were men... men of conviction; men of boldness; men of commitment; men of sacrifice. 

Today one of those protest signs sells for about $10,000, one of the most expensive of all Civil Rights memorabilia. I would take one of those any day over anything else I could pick up in a Memphis airport gift shop. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu