JF Ptak Science Books Quick Post for the History of Lines series
"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
There are many powerful images and messages from the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 1960's. To me, the sign held by the striking sanitation men in Memphis, Tennessee, during February/March/April 1968, is one of the most extraordinary. The strike started in February after the limited response to requests for improved safety conditions for sanitation workers after two men were crushed to death by a truck failure several weeks earlier. It grew quickly into something much larger.
Martin Luther King had been in close contact with strike organizers, which had the help (by early March) as well of James Bevel and Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leaderships Conference’s (SCLC). King returned to Memphis on 3 April, 1968, and gave what turned out to be his speech that evening. It was purely magnificent; and if you watch it, after everything is said and done, you'll see how exhausted the man was, as he almost collapses at its end.
King ends the speech this way:
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life--longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now… 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”
Dr. King was shot and killed the next day, shot to death on the balcony of the Loraine Motel, as he was getting ready to go to dinner.
The mayor of Memphis was not moved enough by this event to settle the strike, and stood firm. The strike was finally ended after the intercession of President Johnson.
I'm interested in the "I Am a Man" sign not only for the lines of resistance of the marchers who held these and other signs, but also for its sublime simplicity, and the insistence of the underlining of Am. These are some of the strongest lines that have ever been made in this country.