Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis twice in 1968, to assist the city’s striking sanitation workers. On his first visit, a demonstration turned violent and he vowed to return to help them do it right. Tragically, on his second visit, he was killed. The campaign in Memphis became known as the “I Am A Man” campaign, partly in thanks to Ernest Withers’ iconic photograph at right.
Recently, the French street artist-turned human rights artist, JR, brought his skills to Washington, D.C. He installed a mural of Withers’ photograph to an unoccupied building at 14th and T STreets, NW. The photograph was printed in huge sections and then installed from an intricate system of scaffolding set against the building. JR gained fame from his 2011 TED talk. This moved him, in the minds of many, from street artist to human rights activist and artist.
The Black Memphis sanitation workers were primarily demonstrating to get to the same rights as their white counterparts. They were paid less. They lost pay when they were sick. Several details of their work lives rendered them unequal to their white colleagues. While they already performed difficult work, which many people would not choose to do, they sought these basic elements of parity.
During his second visit to Memphis, in the late afternoon of April 4th, 1968, Dr. King was planning to visit a local minister’s home for dinner when he was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. It is the campaign he was supporting, the Memphis sanitation workers’ “I Am A Man” campaign, which you can now get a close look at if you stop at the corner of 14th and T Streets, in Northwest Washington, D.C. Thanks to photographer Ernest Withers, and thanks to the artist JR, we can all take a deeper, longer look at the men Dr. King stood beside on the last day of his life.