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Memphis: Becoming a Real City of Good Abode

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I Am A Man Plaza
  • I Am A Man Plaza

Well, this new year isn't going to start the way things did 50 years ago. Mayor Jim Strickland's communications director, Ursula Madden, made that clear Tuesday in remarks to a luncheon of the Rotary Club of Memphis at Clayborn Temple — the venerable edifice that served as a point of assembly for striking sanitation workers and their supporters a half century ago.

For some months now, the Temple, which has been undergoing renovation, has, by a profound moral choice of the Rotarians, been the club's official meeting place. It is also, as Madden explained, next door to the commemorative site, I Am a Man Plaza, now under construction with appropriate monuments, and hard by another development underway, the Martin Luther King Reflection Site, which, as the name implies, will contain memorials that will allow visitors both to recall the events of 1968, that pivotal year of the Memphis sanitation strike and the assassination here of Dr. King, and, by means of reflective devices, to insert their own images into these reminders of history.

It will all be part of MLK50, the city's commemoration of that history and its formal embrace of the motives that prompted Memphis sanitation workers to demand of their fellow townsfolk simple dignity, an elementary appreciation of their contributions to the city's life, and workplace justice. "I AM A MAN," the strikers' slogan, incorporated all those ideas, and it jibed entirely with King's humanitarian goals.

Fifty years ago, those ideas and those goals were not the common property of Memphians — or, for that matter, of much of the rest of the world. It is largely forgotten now, but the Memphis sanitation strike, though it had its own trigger in the unfortunate deaths of three workers trapped in defective machinery, was something of a sequel to a similar strike that had convulsed New York City early in 1968. It was not just Memphis but the Big Apple — and in some ways mankind itself — that was uncharitable enough to flout the basic humanity of its most humble citizens.

But here we are a half century later, and the city, on behalf of mankind, has taken it upon itself to raise that slogan of "I AM A MAN" — captured so eloquently in the photographs by Ernest Withers that went around the world — into the very consciousness of the human race.

Indeed, a necessary concomitant of the forthcoming celebration, as Madden acknowledged on Tuesday, was the city's parallel action, accomplished in the last days of the old year, of renouncing and expunging two flagrant memorials to inequality— the statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis, those paragons to a defeated Confederacy.

In the year to come, the slogan of the striking sanitation workers will be reinforced by a parallel slogan of sorts: I AM MEMPHIS. And, finally, at the site of the National Civil Rights Museum and I AM A MAN Plaza, the city will have moved closer to living up to the phrase it has long claimed: City of Good Abode.

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