Educators can encourage the critical study of history by providing ways for students to imagine design in diverse and shifting worlds. This article investigates the “I Am A Man” placard from the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike. This object is not canonical nor was it commercial, but it exemplifies how people used design to respond to their social lives. What follows is an inclusive approach to history that begins with the cultural conditions for design and later explains its resonances with audiences throughout generations.
In the 1960s, Memphis was home to a sizable migrant population from Arkansas, Mississippi, and western Tennessee. This was part of a decades-long exodus in which millions of African Americans relocated from rural communities in the South to cities further north. Sharecroppers came to Memphis in search of a better life but found a similar plantation mentality in manufacturing, domestic service, and sanitation work.
Discrimination became illegal in 1964, but labor conditions remained divided along racial lines. Black sanitation workers were paid less than their white counterparts. Wages were so low that many workers qualified for welfare. On rainy days, Black workers were sent home without pay while white workers remained on the clock (Estes 2000). Crewmen carried heavy tubs of garbage that leaked waste and maggots onto their bodies (Green 2004). There was no paid time off and no workers compensation.
What few labor unions existed in Memphis were segregated. White unions did not advocate for Black laborers (Estes 2000). For years, Black sanitation workers attempted to organize, but struggled to get traction. Then in February 1968, an old garbage truck malfunctioned, killing two Black crewmen: Echol Cole and Robert Walker. Days later, 1300 workers, backed by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), walked off the job. The strike would last 64 days, ending in both triumph and tragedy.
Their opposition was the newly elected mayor, Henry Loeb, a white supremacist who referred to Black citizens as “his Negroes.” He claimed it was his “moral obligation” to protect the workers from their union and ordered them to get back to work (Estes 2000).
Loeb’s paternalism motivated the core message of the strike. Throughout slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow eras, the racist mainstream disparaged African Americans as social dependents and likened them to children. It was common for white people to degrade Black men by addressing them as “boys.” For these reasons, Bill Lucy, a high-ranking AFSCME official, introduced a slogan that would later become visual: “I Am A Man.”
The message was succinct and relatable. It was a resonant motif in Blues standards like Bo Diddley’s “I Am a Man” and Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” (Honey 2011, 212)—familiar sounds in juke joints along Beale Street. On one level, these songs equated manhood to sexual prowess, but they were also understood as political entendre. “I Am A Man” was a claim to dignity and agency.
The sanitation workers established a daily routine of marching from union headquarters at Clayborn Temple to City Hall. At first, they carried stenciled signs that read “Dignity and Decency,” and “We Are Together.” As the strike progressed, they began using printed placards that read “I AM A MAN” (Green 2004). The design was likely a collaboration between union leaders and Reverend Malcolm Blackburn, a white preacher and journeyman printer who ministered at Clayborn Temple (Honey 2011, 212 and 214).A surviving placard shows a small Allied Printing Trades Council seal at the bottom. This indicates that they were produced by a unionized jobbing printer in Memphis, which may have been located at the church.
The placard communicated urgency with expedience in bold, display type. A simple underline beneath the word am emphasized being. Some protestors mounted the placards to rods while others wore them against their chests. The portrait orientation of the sign combined with its placement against a worker’s body created an assemblage that united the message with the figure.
The link between emancipation and manhood combined with the image of the Black body has a precedent in abolitionist propaganda. In the 1780s, the British Society for the Abolition of Slavery adopted a seal that featured an enslaved man with a banner reading “Am I not a man and a brother?” Notably, in this design, made by white people, the figure is kneeling and begging for sympathy. White abolitionists appealed to prospective supporters by highlighting their common humanity with enslaved people while depicting them as docile. By contrast, in “I Am A Man,” made by Black people, the figure is no longer supplicant, but standing behind a self-authored declaration. Manhood was not a question for the sanitation workers, but a fact and a demand to be recognized.
“I Am a Man” shares a lineage with “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday,” a flag mounted outside the NAACP headquarters from 1920 to 1938. The flag first appeared after the brutal lynching of Jesse Washington, and was unfurled each time a mob murdered an African American in the United States—an almost continual protest. The NAACP discontinued the campaign when their building owner threatened eviction. Like the placard, this flag enunciated Black manhood using direct language and bold, unadorned typography.
The Memphis sanitation workers demanded safety measures, higher wages, union recognition, and other benefits (Estes 2000). But their slogan “I Am A Man” sprung from a deeply engrained source of historical pain that resonated with broader audiences. When peaceful protests ended in police brutality, the sanitation workers were joined by a coalition of clergy and the Black middle class (Green 2004). They enlisted the NAACP and Dr. Martin Luther King hoping that national media attention would persuade Loeb.
Dr. King came to Memphis in March. He enthused crowds by arguing that labor rights were tied to civil rights. He evoked the history of denigration from slavery to low-wage work and linked Black masculinity to the stability of Black families: “We are tired of our men being emasculated so that our wives and daughters have to go out and work in the white lady’s kitchen, leaving us unable to be with our children and give them the time and attention they need” (Estes 2000). While this view maintained traditional gender roles, Dr. King dubbed “emasculation” as the demotion of men to boys, not men to women (Estes 2000).
Although the strike was fueled by gendered language, many women adopted the message and found their own forms of identification with it (Green 2004). Black women were crucial to the strike by participating in marches, preparing sandwiches for sit-ins, picketing downtown businesses, and working extra shifts while their husbands demonstrated. Black women later used “I Am a Man” in their own efforts to organize in sweatshops, hospitals, and laundries (Green 2004).
While “I Am A Man” was a means for all Black people to stand up for their rights and demand due respect, it also held distinct meanings for those involved. For the sanitation workers, “I Am A Man” meant earning fair wages so they could provide for themselves and their families without public assistance. For Black women, “I Am A Man” meant claiming identities that were equal with men but distinct from white women in whose homes they often worked (Green 2004). For Civil Rights leaders and the clergy, “I Am A Man” confronted the plantation mentality that viewed African Americans as servile and incapable of making their own decisions. They connected the strike to national efforts for social justice (Skool 2001). Similarly, white and Black union leaders connected what was happening in Memphis to labor movements across the United States.
The strike culminated when Dr. King lead a nonviolent march down Beale Street. Events took a ruinous turn. When a small group of youth began smashing storefront windows (Estes 2000), police violently retaliated. They maced and clubbed people indiscriminately. Protestors attempted to retreat to Clayborn Temple, but police followed them and tear-gassed them inside the sanctuary (Conover 2018). An officer followed the 16-year-old Larry Payne to his home and murdered him. During the tumult, Dr. King was ushered away by aids.
Determined to show that peaceful protest could work, Dr. King returned to Memphis in early April. He delivered a speech, “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” calling for unity and nonviolence. The following evening, while he addressed a gathering outside his room at Lorraine Motel, Dr. King was shot by a white supremacist. When news of his death reached the nation, riots broke out across the country. All eyes were on Memphis. Under pressure, Loeb finally agreed to resolve the strike.
Over 40,000 people gathered in Memphis for a memorial demonstration led by Coretta Scott King. Many wore signs reading “Honor King: End Racism!” and “I Am A Man” printed in a similar style. The placard then took on a commemorative quality that signified Dr. King and Civil Rights. Since 1968, “I Am A Man” has made regular appearances in political demonstrations and in other forms of cultural production.
In the 1970s, “I Am A Man” was taken up in subsequent labor strikes. It reappeared in the 1990s in intersections with LGBTQ liberation. Most recently, “I Am a Man” lives on in the cogent strategies of Black Lives Matter.
Artists Glenn Ligon, Dread Scott, and Hank Willis Thomas each referred to the placard in works that linked historical memory to contemporary identities. Designer Derek Ham published a virtual reality experience simulating Memphis in 1968. Audiences can explore the past from the vantage point of a crewman in various immersive scenes, like a shift behind a garbage truck or a strike demonstration. Tré Seals’ typeface Martin, released in 2016 under Vocal Type, is based on the letterforms of the “I Am A Man” placard. In these examples, “I Am A Man” inspires reflection on historical inequities, creates space for Black contributions to professional art and design discourse, and brings stories from people in the past into the present.
What began as the slogan for a labor strike became a national emblem in the ongoing quest for racial equality. In its time, “I Am A Man” was an expression of agency that registered with multiple audiences. It lives on as a self-proclamation that tells an unassailable truth. Its presence in contemporary life is evidence of a dual inheritance: one in which structural racism unfortunately persists and one in which commitment to dismantling those structures must be continually renewed.
As the story of this placard shows, some of history’s most important topics are not reducible to forms alone, but how forms intersect with society. As design educators, we can contribute to a better world by:
Sharing current and historical examples made by non-professionals and those who have been excluded from the canon
Explaining that design is dependent on cultural, political, and economic factors
Framing cultural context as plural, not a singular mainstream
Explaining how symbols change or sustain their meanings over time and in response to changing audience needs
Asking students to observe how design reverberates; potential ripple effects could be considered in studio practice
Placard stating “I AM A MAN” carried by Arthur J Schmidt in 1968 Memphis March. (n.d.) National Museum of African American History and Culture. [Visited on June 19, 2020] Available from: https://nmaahc.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2017.71.4