Spotlight on the Collection

September 2013: I Am a Man

I Am a Man: Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tennessee, March 28th, 1968. Ernest Withers, 1968; printed 1994. Gelatin silver print. Museum purchase, 2006.322.1.

I Am a Man: Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tennessee, March 28th, 1968. Ernest Withers, 1968; printed 1994. Gelatin silver print. Museum purchase, 2006.322.1.

I Am a Man: Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tennessee, March 28th, 1968, Ernest Withers, 1968

After Ernest Withers (1922-2007) received his first camera in high school, he quickly began documenting events and people in his immediate community.  A quiet determination to get the best shot continued throughout his life. His ties within Memphis’s Black community afforded him a proximity to central figures of the Civil Rights Movement; he eventually became the movement’s most widely published photographer. He once recalled, “I was trained as a high school student in history. But I didn’t know that I would be recording the high multitude of imagery and history that I did record.”

In 1943, after attempting and failing to make a career out of photography, Withers enlisted in the armed forces and trained at the Army School of Photography at Camp Sutton, North Carolina. During his service, he practiced camera and darkroom skills by making portraits of fellow servicemen in Saigon. When he returned to Memphis in the late 1940s, he earned a modest living photographing the Black community there through pictures of sporting events, images of performers and audiences at nightclubs, and family portraits. In 1948, Withers became one of Memphis’s “original nine” Black police force, putting his studio photography aside.

Following the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955, reporters—both Black and white—flocked to Sumner, Mississippi, where the trial was held. Withers, who had been struggling to reestablish his studio business after his stint with the police force, embraced the opportunity to document an event of great personal importance to him. During the trial, Withers met Medgar Evers, an activist with whom he would work closely on subsequent civil rights cases and events. His work reached people across the nation in papers such as the Chicago Tribune, Memphis’ own Tri-State Defender, and New York Amsterdam News.

Withers’s I Am A Man, taken during the Memphis sanitation worker’s strike of 1968, is one of the most recognizable images from the Civil Rights Movement. At the time of the strike, racial tensions were high over inequalities in pay, distribution of work, and opportunities for advancement that ran along racial lines. When two Black men died on the job, and their families received only $500 in funeral expenses, the workers went on strike; organizations such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Community on the Move for Equality, and the Invaders rallied behind them. As a resident of Memphis and an influential member of its Black community, Withers helped plan the march; in fact, he even made some of the iconic “I Am a Man” signs – a rallying cry based on “Am I not a man and a brother?” used by abolitionists in the 18th and 19th centuries – seen here. The image is made more poignant since the strike took place one week before the assassination of its champion, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

—Tyler Pratt, education – visitor engagement intern, summer 2013

Join the conversation!

In what ways did photography contribute to the Civil Rights Movement? How do images play an important role in the development of social consciousness? Check out the following links, and join the conversation!

Ernest Withers, Panopticon Gallery

“Emmett Till and the Impact of Images: Photos of Murdered Youth Spurred Civil Rights Activism,” NPR, June 23, 2004

“Civil Rights, One Person and One Photo at a Time,” New York Times, April 22, 2013

“A Radically Prosaic Approach to Civil Rights Images,” New York Times, July 16, 2012

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