When the Reverend James Lawson shouted “I am a man,” fifty years ago today, thousands of Memphis garbage strikers first echoed him—then millions of Americans did.
Tragically, James Lawson’s civil rights slogan defined Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final crusade—and unintentionally helped doom King. Lawson invited King to lead the Memphis garbageman’s strike that spring. That visit placed King in the path of the sniper’s bullet on April 4, 1968.
King endorsed Lawson’s expansion of the Civil Rights agenda, from demanding political rights to seeking economic justice. Memphis’s mostly African-American sanitation workers were fed up with minimal benefits and laughable wages—between $1.60 and $1.90 per hour. On February 1, a malfunctioning trash compactor crushed two men seeking shelter from a downpour inside their garbage trucks—yet their families received no compensation. Workers protested. The struggle escalated, exacerbated by Mayor Henry Loeb’s brusqueness.
The strike began February 12. Within three days, ten thousand tons of refuse were rotting on Memphis streets. Every day, as the strikers marched at noon, the Memphis police billy-clubbed and pepper-sprayed them. On February 24, fuming after a particularly violent confrontation the day before, the Reverend James Lawson delivered his stirring message.