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Memphis, Tenn., Honors 1968 Sanitation Workers With ‘I Am a Man’ Plaza

I am a man

Memphis, TN – “I am a man.” Perhaps no phrase encapsulates the sentiment of the struggle for freedom, justice and equality more than “I am a man.”

I am a man
Historic Clayborn Temple is adjacent to I Am a Man Plaza. (Michael Harriot/The Root)

Every day during the 1968 Memphis, Tenn., sanitation workers’ strike, Memphis’ black sanitation employees would meet downtown at the historic Clayborn Temple. When the men arrived, they would pick up picket signs that read, “I am a man,” and march downtown to protest the unequal wages and unsafe conditions to which they were subjected by the city of Memphis.

The signs, printed in the basement of Clayborn Temple, became one of the iconic slogans and symbols of the civil rights struggle.

The strike had been going on for weeks before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. decided to join the striking workers. It began when Echol Cole and Robert Walker lost their lives in a trash compactor and ended shortly after King was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

On Thursday (April 5) the city of Memphis formally acknowledged its role in the strike and the part it played in the events that led to the death of King when it dedicated the new I Am a Man Plaza.

Seated next to Clayborn Temple, I Am a Man Plaza is framed by a marble entrance that features quotes by King and others involved in the sanitation strike. Markers encircle the plaza, each one recounting the timeline of the strike.

The centerpiece of the space is the I Am a Man sculpture. Designed by sculptor Cliff Garten, who won the national competition to create the project, the bronze-and-stainless-steel piece features the iconic quote with the words of the sanitation workers carved into the body of the work.

I am a manAlong the border of the plaza is a wall with the names of each of the 1,300 sanitation workers etched into marble.

“A few family members of the sanitation workers came to the park and just wanted to touch the names,” said Garten tearfully. “It is a really incredible thing.”

Minority contractors designed, managed and constructed the project, funded by the city of Memphis.

“This is the first time the city of Memphis has formally acknowledged its role in the sanitation strike,” said Ursula Madden, chief communications officer for the city of Memphis. “We hope that it would inspire the future generations to stand up for what is right.”

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Phyllis Coley
Phyllis D. Coley is CEO/Publisher of Spectacular Magazine and Host of Spectacular Magazine Radio Show. With a B.A. in English from NCCU, the Durham native began her professional career as Promotions/Marketing Director for New York City’s WKTU-FM. While at the radio station, Coley discovered the rap group Kid ‘n Play and managed them for five years, guiding their music and movie careers to success. Moving back to Durham, Coley produced a nationally syndicated television show, The Electric Factory, while working as News Director for FOXY 107/104. In April 2002, recognizing a void in highlighting the achievements of African Americans, she started her own business publishing ACE Magazine. Coley launched Spectacular Magazine in November 2004. Recognizing the lack of pertinent and truthful information, Coley began Spectacular Magazine Radio Show in March 2009. Coley is the organizer of Durham's Annual MLK/Black History Month Parade and the Annual North Carolina Juneteenth Celebration. She currently serves on Central Children’s Home Board of Directors, Raleigh Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Advisors, as Immediate Past Secretary of the Durham Rotary Club Board of Directors and is one of the founding members of the Triangle United Way’s African American Leadership Initiative.

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