By Nii B. Andrews.
When MLK went to Memphis in April 1968, it was to support the two month old strike by 1300 Memphis sanitation workers over their conditions of service.
They were the lowest of the low in the pecking order,” said Fred Davis, a former city council member, “When a kid wanted to put somebody down, they’d refer to their daddy being a sanitation worker.”
Things were so bad in 1968 that when after two workers- Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who seeking shelter from rain were accidentally crushed to death inside a truck with a faulty switch, the sanitation workers proceeded to organize a strike.
During the strike, the workers carried in silent dignity, posters that have since become iconic.
The posters simply stated, in bold letering “I AM A MAN”. This phrase resonated with signification at multiple levels perhaps even echoing with all the aspects of transcendence.
At one level, it riffed on the title of that classic of modern writing by Ralph Ellison, “The Invisible Man”.
Therein, the nameless narrator of the novel describes growing up in an African-American community located in the South. He then attends a “Negro college”, gets expelled and then relocates to New York where he becomes the chief spokesperson for the Harlem branch of “the Brotherhood”.
Violence and confusion ensue forcing him to retreat to the basement of the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be.
To date, the graphic “I Am A Man” poster has inspired works by several contemporary artists, including – Glenn Ligon, Dread Scott, and Hank Willis Thomas.
During an online auction held on May 7 by Swann Auction Galleries in New York City, “I Am A Man, Memphis” (1968), a dorm poster with red lettering printed by Emerson Graphics in San Francisco, sold for a record $6,500, about 10 times more than the estimate ($500-$750).
This set a new sales record for the poster.
Other items in the auction were rare African American books, photographs, and posters; historic documents, archives, pamphlets, and brochures; as well as art-related ephemera.
It was during that trip to Memphis to support the sanitation workers that MLK delivered his rousing “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple Church of God in Christ.
The next day, April 4, 1968, MLK was brutally murdered in cold blood at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.