Signs saying I AM A MAN have been common in the recent Black Lives Matter protests, but the history of this phrase goes back more than 50 years.

Black Lives Matter protest, June 7, 2020. ©Miki Jourdan

The tragic conditions that inspired the sign

We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are saying that we are God’s children.

Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at the sanitation strike

In 1968, sanitation workers went on strike in Memphis to protest horrible working conditions, discrimination, and the death of two workers due to faulty equipment. They carried signs saying I AM A MAN as a statement of their worth and the dignity that they were fighting for.

Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis to help the strikers as part of the larger civil rights movement. He called for ongoing non-violent protests and economic actions. In what was to be his last speech, his famous words were “I’ve been to the mountaintop ….. 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.” He was assassinated the next day. After much contention, the strike was settled in the aftermath of his death.

This ten-minute documentary from the union is incredibly moving, with original clips of the workers and of King’s speeches.

Some other times the sign has been seen around D.C.:

On 14th Street:

14th Street NW, 11/19/20. ©Diane Krauthamer

Opening of the streetcar, 2016

At the opening ceremony for the new streetcar on H St., protestors from the Amalgamated Transit Union carried this sign.

©Victoria Pickering

The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington

8/28/2013, ©Victoria Pickering

2012 Mural

In 2012, French artist JR covered an empty building at 14th and T St. NW with large copies of the iconic photo. He said that he chose this image because “this says it all.”

©Joe Flood

February is Black History Month. For more information and celebrations about this month, check out the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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