Robert Worsham may be the most significant writer to emerge from the South in the modern era. You've probably never heard of him, but Worsham penned a work that embodies Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "Beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword." Though unpublished, unschooled, and mostly overlooked by the leaders of the movement he helped define, Worsham wrote four of the most important words ever printed.
"I Am A Man"
Don't look at me with disdain,
For I am not a weakling, I am a man.
I stood when to stand
brought severe reprimand,
I spoke, when to speak
brought denunciations from the weak,
and brutal attacks from those in power,
But to me this was my greatest hour,
With chin thrust out and head up proud,
I stood up straight and I said out loud,
I am a man!
And I shall always defy
the oppression of mankind
until the day I die.
Worsham's defiant verse gave the civil rights movement its most telling image, captured by acclaimed photojournalist Ernest Withers in his famous photograph. "People always want to focus on the so-called leaders," says Withers, "but it was the contribution of the everyday man and woman, the working people, that brought us forward."
Though few know of Worsham's pivotal contribution, he gained fleeting recognition from an appearance on a local morning talk show, The Marge Thrasher Show, in 1988. As part of the program's focus on Black History Month, Worsham recounted the heartbreaking incident that moved him to write I Am A Man. Thrasher was moved to tears. "I was riding the bus home, so I went to the back of the bus where I could stretch out and be more comfortable," Worsham recalled. "A couple of young kids on the bus, black kids, saw me go to the back and called me an Uncle Tom."
It was 1962. Memphis buses had only recently been desegregated when the kids insulted him, mistaking his seeking an unshared seat as following old custom. "I thought, How dare you say something like that to me. To me!" he says. "I am a father. I made it through hard times that would have made those little clowns run off crying for their mamas. I had helped organize strikes at the Chisca hotel and the American Finishing Company long before the movement took hold, and they would say something like that to me."
So Worsham took out his notebook and penned the words that would so influence modern history.
Ironically, just two days before, Judge Beverly Bouche had fined him $20 for taking the law into his own hands and shoving his way onto a bus seat next to a white man. "I didn't put my hands on him or anything," Worsham says, "just pushed my way in so they had to move over and give me room. It was crowded, but there was enough space to slide over and give me a seat, but he wouldn't let me sit down. Judge Bouche also gave him a $20 fine for refusing to move over."
Recognizing his poem's power, Worsham copyrighted I Am A Man and later gave a copy of it to local activist and friend Cornelia Crenshaw. "I gave it to her to honor people that were committed to change," says Worsham. She used the poem as a rallying cry for Memphis' sanitation strike.
But while the phrase commanded worldwide attention, Worsham's contribution remained an obscure fact until his appearance on Thrasher's program. In another ironic twist, Worsham believes his recognition actually led to his being fired from his job as director of operations for Horizons of Memphis, Inc., a janitorial service. "I couldn't really prove it, but that's what it was," he says. "I knew I couldn't sue them for being racist, so I sued them for age discrimination."
Always a fighter, Worsham served as his own attorney in the litigation. His suit against Horizon's owners, Robert Worsham Sr. vs. Jack Price, Et Al., was fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear his pro se arguments. But Worsham claims victory in the matter. "We lost the battle but won the war. It went on for seven years. I was representing myself, but can you imagine what it cost them in attorney fees? They shut down not too long after that," he says with a laugh. "They didn't know who they were messing with."
Eighty-two years old now, Worsham putters around his small home in North Memphis, joshing with his wife Gertrude, attending to his writings and reflections, and delighting in the lives of his four children. It's been a long journey but a happy one. He feels that he should have received more recognition for his contribution to the civil rights movement but says, "I'm not really bitter about it. I haven't had time. I have four beautiful children who all have successful careers," he says. Retrieving a new microcassette recorder from the room that serves as his library and study, he grins and says, "My baby girl just bought it for me so I can record my writings and thoughts."
Worsham made his living at such jobs as railroad porter, hotel operator, and tax inspector. But he has no regrets. He's lived his life like his poem reads. "I actually got along better with white people because I looked them straight in the eye when I spoke," he says. "I carried myself with pride and respect and received it in return."
He is a man.