Sunday, March 30, 2008

Those Memphis sanitation workers

1968 isn't just on my mind. Leonard Pitts went to Memphis to find the sanitation workers who participated in the strike that led to Martin Luther King's murder. He found several of them -- still working. It's part of a package including a timeline and videos: I Am a Man. Powerful.
Soon after, a new slogan appeared on the signs the black men carried. Four words, but they were provocative. Four words, but in that time and place, they were incendiary. Four words, but they managed to encapsulate at long last something black men had never quite been able to get America to understand.
Four words.
I AM A Man.
...And 40 years later, you arrive in an era where a black man is running for president and, for all the myriad issues of race and identity with which he is forced to grapple, he is not required to prove himself a man. His manhood is a given. The men who helped make that possible are aged and dying and largely forgotten. And feeling, some of them say, cheated.
They say the union they won is not strong and receives little support from younger workers. The job benefits aren't great, either. Ben Jones says he's still working at 71 because he needs to pay off his house; when he retires, his only income will be from Social Security. Sanitation workers have no pension.
Nor did racism disappear. "Some of 'em still call you boy," says Nickelberry. "In some of 'ems eyes, you ain't nothin' but a boy. Still a boy."
But there is, he says, a difference: You don't have to take it anymore. "I tell 'em, 'I'm 76 years old. I'm old enough for your daddy. I ain't no boy. I am a man.' "
40 years later.



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