Home Community Blog I Am A Man: MLK Day Assembly

Speech given by Dr. Jason Labau during assembly

I have a poster in my classroom that has raised a lot of questions. This is the image on the poster. It is four simple words: “I Am A Man.” Today I would like to talk to you about what this poster meant, what it means to me, and what it might mean to us.

This image comes from a particular time and place: the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Worker strike. Black sanitation workers in Memphis faced unequal conditions. They were paid lower wages,  leaving many of them in poverty. They worked longer hours. During bad weather conditions, white workers would be sent home and paid for their day while black workers were still required to stay on the job and to clean up some of the messiest parts of Memphis in some of the worst weather conditions in order to get their pay. Since the department’s showers were reserved for whites only, the black workers would have to ride the bus home with whatever filth had gotten on their clothes. They also faced unsafe working conditions. They often had the worst equipment and the most dangerous jobs. In fact, a truck malfunctioned and killed two black workers that year. Black workers also faced dehumanizing treatment from those around them. The new mayor, Henry Loeb, was a white supremacist who spoke of them as “our sanitation workers”. It was common in that time for black men to be called “boy” no matter their age or station in life, treated as though they were children. And so the sanitation workers went on strike and took “I Am A Man” as their slogan.

It wasn’t just the sanitation workers, many other people joined them in protesting as well, including black women. Here is an image of one protester who has written the letters “WO” in front of “I Am A Man” so that her sign reads “I Am A Woman” as she claims the same equality of dignity and treatment. But in the face of these protests and the strike by the sanitation workers, the mayor called out the police. They responded with tear gas and violence. One protester, a 16-year old young man, was killed by the police.

It was in this context that Martin Luther King, Jr. agreed to join the sanitation workers. He had been working to draw attention not only to Civil Rights around issues of race but also around poverty in America. The Sanitation Workers strike seemed like the perfect opportunity for him to highlight the way these two conditions came together in their case. Unfortunately, as he joined what he believed would be a peaceful protest in March, violence quickly broke out. He had to be whisked away by from the protest for his safety and he left Memphis. But he decided to come back in April of that year, in spite of the dangers that surrounded him, and he met with strikes and protesters, giving the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. I’d like to quote some of that for you.

That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job?” … The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help [those in need], what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. 

Then he went on to comment on the threats he had faced.

I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane… The pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And 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!

The next day King was on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. It was one of the few hotels that would accommodate black guests and he had stayed there in the past. He was in good spirits looking ahead to the struggle to come and what might be accomplished here in Memphis. But that day an assassin shot and killed Dr. King on that balcony.  There is a famous image of that scene with King laying on the ground and his associates pointing in the direction where the assassin has fired, hoping he would be quickly apprehended.

This is all part of what the image on the poster means. It reflects the sanitation workers and their struggle, their push for equal dignity. It reflects King’s death, the assassin who took his life. And it reminds me of King’s life and of his hope — in the face of threats — that there could be a Promised Land of a greater, more just America.

In my room this image is one of three posters on the back wall. Together, they make a triple set, one story of American history. The first poster bears an image of the Declaration of Independence, that document in which it declares “all men are created equal.” When Jefferson and other signers wrote that they didn’t actually mean that all people were equal. They meant men, they meant white men, they meant white men with a certain degree of wealth were equal. But that message, those words, were significant. They rang down through history as other Americans grabbed hold of those words and claimed their own equality and dignity in this nation. 

The next poster shows a piece of art titled “Reading the Emancipation Proclamation.” It imagines a moment when a black US Army soldier read the Emancipation Proclamation to a group of enslaved people, declaring that they were now free. It is a moment recognizing what the Civil War accomplished, as black and white Americans fought side by side. On the third poster is that “I Am a Man” image.  Together these three images represent a chronology: 100-year increments of the progress the United States has made.

From the declaration that “all men are created equal” it took 100 years to reach freedom for the enslaved. From there it took another hundred years for a civil rights struggle that would topple legal discrimination in this country. We are only two years away from the 250th anniversary of the United states. What might a poster then show of our continuing struggle for equality? In another 50 years, in your lifetime, what would the 100-year poster show?

The story these images suggest is only one story of America, a story in which more people are seen and treated as fully people. It is a contested story, one that has never been easy but one that people have fought for. Martin Luther King’s assassin was every bit as much an American as Martin Luther King himself. There have always been people who have been eager for fewer Americans to receive their full dignity, equality, and justice; just as there have been those who have fought for greater equality, dignity, and justice. We can join together in that broader struggle.

To return to King’s words from Memphis:

The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help [those in need], what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.

You have an opportunity to make America a better nation, starting here at Waterford.

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