I AM A MAN Plaza to honor civil rights milestone

Plans are coming together for the new I AM A MAN Plaza, which will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Memphis sanitation workers strike and their struggle led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,

Completion of the unique art installation and public gathering space is expected for the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's assassination in April 2017. 

An UAC committee reviewed 78 initial applications and invited six artists/artist teams to submit site-specific designs. Cliff Garten won the competition for his sculpture for “I AM A MAN.”

“As part of his design, he envisioned that sculpture within a plaza that is adjacent to historic Clayborn Temple, which is like ground zero for the Sanitation Workers Strike organization that actually started from there and marched into Downtown Memphis,” said John Jackson, president and CEO of JPA Inc. “So it’s a unique fit between ‘I AM A MAN’ and Clayborn Temple.”

The City of Memphis and the UrbanArt Commission recently announced that Jackson, a local landscape artist, will lead the project along with Cliff Garten of Cliff Garten Studio of Venice, Calif. Local poet and spoken word artist Steve Fox is also collaborating with the team.

Jackson and JPA are responsible for prominent civil rights projects across the country including the 75-acre Martin Luther King, Jr. national historical site in Atlanta; the Harlem District streetscape and civil rights march in Albany, Ga.; the Tuskegee Airmen national historical site in Tuskegee, Ala.; the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. streetscape corridor study in Valdosta, Ga.; Medgar Evers home in Jackson, Miss. and many more.

JPA just completed schematic designs for the project, with walkways, plant materials and lighting to highlight the artwork. The central sculpture is made up of 15-foot tall stainless steel letters forming the iconic phrase I AM A MAN. Quotes and speeches from prominent civil rights leaders will be included in various components of the environment supporting the sculpture.

The budget for the public art piece is $700,000 with an additional $1 million for the plaza construction. Once the schematics are approved, construction could get underway by late November.

“Not only is the contractor building the plaza but there are other entities building pieces that will fit into it, so coordinating the timing of those is really key,” explained Jackson.

The design team, in partnership with UAC, will lead multiple engagement workshops across the city to share the design with Memphians and review the text identified to be included throughout the plaza.

Workshops will take place on August 24 at the Orange Mound Community Center, August 29 at Clayborn Temple and September 7 at the Whitehaven Community Center.

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.
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