This photo comes a blog called Lynnertic. The author says: "Martin Luther King, Jr. died 40 years ago as he helped black sanitation workers in Memphis strike for fair wages, fair working conditions, dignity and human rights. The signs reading I am a Man became an iconic symbol of the cause for which Dr. King and many others died. The photograph was taken by Ernest Withers, a civil rights photographer who passed away in 2007."
Out of the huts of history's shame - I riseLC's Prints and Photos Division has a set of photos from a much earlier garbage strike, one that took place in New York City in November 1911. The strikes had little in common. The one for the dignity of man, the other for better working conditions; the one in an environment of obdurate racial hostility, the other in a city that was generally disposed to support the rights of labor; the one confronting a reactionary mayor, the other a determined but reformist one. Looking back from our vantage point here in early 2009 the principles at stake in Memphis are clear, those in New York ambiguous.
Up from a past that's rooted in pain - I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear - I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear - I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
- This is the conclusion of the Maya Angelou poem Still I Rise
If parallelisms are weak, the LC photos are nonetheless interesting.
An article in the New York Times gives some background. The men demanded that they be able to work during daylight hours, mainly for reasons of safety, and the Sanitation Department, which employed them, refused to grant this demand. A snide letter to the editor gives one person's reaction:
The reason for the cleaners' strikeThe city hired strikebreakers and the work stoppage was soon brought to an end. Times letter writers saw the conflict as a test of power between the Teamsters Union and city government. Some supported the union and some supported government, but most simply wanted their ashes collected and the streets cleared of accumulating trash.
Is plain to one who's smart;
Like most of us they want to choose
Their hours a la carte.
LC's photos are from its Bain News Service collection. The garbage trucks of the day consisted of one man, one horse, one cart. The city operated more than 20,000 of them. I appreciate the dignity of the horses shown in the photos: alert, patient, and strong. The images seem to show a police force intent on preserving order without taking sides. In them the faces of strikebreakers show a lack of confidence, maybe just nervousness, maybe fear. The faces of the crowds in the street show everything from anger, to interest in the spectacle unfolding before them, to the well-known New Yorker's seen-it-all aloofness.