A half century ago, hundreds of Black sanitation workers marched through Memphis carrying signs bearing four small words: "I am a man."
Their short slogan carried a powerful message: Low-paid Black workers are human, and they deserve to be treated as such. Their lives, to quote today's activists for racial justice, matter.
The slogan — and its larger campaign for racial and economic equity — challenged systemic oppression of Black people. And it took on underlying white supremacist beliefs that positioned them as less than human and unworthy of humane working conditions and pay.
The campaign was sparked by an incident on February 1, 1968, when Memphis city officials forced workers to collect garbage during a heavy rainstorm, according to The Washington Post. Two men took refuge from the rain in the back of their truck and were crushed when it malfunctioned. The city refused to compensate their families for their deaths.
A week and a half later, on February 12, hundreds of Black sanitation workers walked off the job, launching a months-long strike for better safety standards, decent wages, and recognition of their union, according to the Martin Luther King Jr. Institute at Stanford University. It drew support from King …