“Am I not a man and a brother?”
The global COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has had a disproportionately adverse impact on essential workers, including many people of color, as they continue to be called on to keep businesses and critical public services running across the United States. On Labor Day 2020, we share the perspectives of three artists whose work recalls the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968. The iconic protest signs featured in each of these images are poignant reminders of ongoing struggles against racism in America. They invite us to think about the roles we play in the largely unacknowledged caste system embedded in this country’s operating system.
Artist Hank Willis Thomas refers to the sanitation strike in his 2011 work “I AM, AMEN,” remembering photographs by Ernest Withers that depict dozens of African American men standing together in protest, each silently declaring, “I am a man.” Thomas purposefully ends his 20-panel installation with an earnest affirmation: “Amen.” “Rather than validating ourselves by anyone else’s standards,” says the artist, “the revelation is that consciousness alone is our greatest gift.”
In 2008, while working on a newspaper story with fellow Miami Herald journalist Leonard Pitts Jr., Haitian American photojournalist Carl Juste captured the image of Memphis sanitation worker Elmore Nickelberry with his son Terence, holding a placard that reads, “I Am A Man.” In 1968, Nickelberry was among more than 1,300 African American men employed by the Memphis Department of Public Works who went on strike in response to the deaths of two fellow sanitation workers. Commenting on his portrait of the elder Nickelberry, Juste says, “I just wanted to capture that dignity that was often deprived him.”
After Ernest Withers (1922-2007) received his first camera in high school, he quickly began documenting events and people in his immediate community. A quiet determination to get the best shot continued throughout his life. His ties within Memphis’s Black community afforded him a proximity to central figures of the Civil Rights Movement; he eventually became the movement’s most widely published photographer. He once recalled, “I was trained as a high school student in history. But I didn’t know that I would be recording the high multitude of imagery and history that I did record.”
Withers’s I Am A Man, taken during the Memphis sanitation worker’s strike of 1968, is one of the most recognizable images from the Civil Rights Movement. At the time of the strike, racial tensions were high over inequalities in pay, distribution of work, and opportunities for advancement that ran along racial lines. When two Black men died on the job, and their families received only $500 in funeral expenses, the workers went on strike; organizations such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Community on the Move for Equality, and the Invaders rallied behind them.
As a resident of Memphis and an influential member of its Black community, Withers helped plan the march; in fact, he even made some of the iconic “I Am A Man” signs – a rallying cry based on “Am I not a man and a brother?” used by abolitionists in the 18th and 19th centuries – seen here. The image is made more poignant since the strike took place one week before the assassination of its champion, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
—Tyler Pratt, Education – visitor engagement intern, Summer 2013, Birmingham Museum of Art
Excerpt from “September 2013: I Am a Man”: https://www.artsbma.org/september-2013-spotlight/