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251 7 7 7 7 7 7 Eight and a half years after a spirited rally of 5,000 African American voters in 1959 prompted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to spontaneously predict that “Something is going to happen,” King once again stood before a huge crowd of Memphians. This time, on March 18, 1968, 15,000 people crammed into the same cavernous Mason Temple to hear King and demonstrate their support for striking city sanitation workers. A few weeks prior to King’s speech, reactions to Memphis policemen’s use of mace against participants in a march by sanitation workers and supporters , including black clergymen, had transformed what had begun as a labor struggle for union recognition into a mass movement for economic justice, racial equality, and respect. King’s appearance at Mason Temple publicly marked this crucial coalescence of labor, politics, and the black freedom movement.1 King had interrupted his planning meetings for the upcoming nationwide Poor People’s Campaign to fly to Memphis to support the strike. Inspired by the enthusiastic crowd that rocked Mason Temple, which, to King, seemed to crystallize the impassioned spirit of the earlier southern black freedom movement and to anticipate the struggle for economic justice addressed by the Poor People’s Campaign, King departed from his planned speech. To the surprise of his colleagues in the sclc, he proposed a “general work stoppage in the city of Memphis” and promised to return to lead a march. “If you let that day come, not a Negro in this city will go to any job downtown,” he declared. “And no Negro in domestic service will go to anybody’s house, anybody’s kitchen. And black students will not go to anybody’s school, and black teachers, and they will hear you then. The city of Memphis will not be able to function that day.”2 King’s call for a general strike of black workers, issued two weeks before 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 Battling the Plantation Mentality From the Civil Rights Act to the Sanitation Strike 8 From the Civil Rights Act to the Sanitation Strike 252 his tragic assassination at the Lorraine Motel during a return visit to Memphis , bore witness to the fact that four years after President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law, working-class African Americans in the South perceived genuine freedom as an unfulfilled promise. Black activism had broadened, not abated. The sanitation strike, although it has often been portrayed as erupting out of the blue in an otherwise placid city, represented the most visible and symbolically resonant labor struggle amidst a groundswell of activism among working-class black Memphians. The audience King addressed on March 18 included workers in occupations ranging from furniture manufacturing to television assembly , and welfare recipients who identified with the fact that the sanitation workers’ low wages qualified them for food stamps.3 The language of freedom that emerged in this post-1964 milieu had roots deep in Memphis’s past while also articulating fresh understandings . In this sense, the sanitation workers’ slogan, “I Am a Man,” which suddenly appeared in bold capital letters on hundreds of placards borne by strikers during a mass march midway through the 1968 movement, became a touchstone for myriad struggles for racial equality, economic justice , and dignity that emerged in the late 1960s. Its claim to manhood and freedom, as an assault on what many had begun to refer to as a “plantation mentality,” resonated with thousands more urban working-class African Americans than just the standard-bearers themselves. Working-class African Americans who identified with the freedom movement desired a break from the plantation regime they associated with an earlier time and place but still saw reflected in everyday racial practices in the city. Grounded in memory, migration, and critical thought, their attack on the “plantation mentality” denounced not only whites who acted like plantation bosses but also blacks who appeared fearful of breaking free of their white supervisors . With the words “I Am a Man” the strikers and their supporters rejected both kinds of “plantation mentality” and claimed a vigorous political agency that made “manhood” central to being free. This gendered language of freedom referred to both internal problems of self-identity and external relations of power. While “I Am a Man” resonated with Black Power’s muscular rhetoric of masculinity, such language took on distinct meanings in the context of...


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