Surviving workers of the 1968 sanitation workers strike returned to the church where they once galvanized to fight for fairer working conditions, organizing an effort that catapulted Memphis into national significance during the civil rights movement.
Those efforts are memorialized with a new public plaza.
During the I AM A MAN Plaza groundbreaking ceremony December 11 at Clayborn Temple, nearly 100 attendees gathered to commemorate the protest, which led to union rights, better working conditions and raises for Memphis sanitation workers.
Attendees and speakers at the groundbreaking included Mayor Jim Strickland; Diane Rudner, Plough Foundation chairman of the board of trustees; Councilman Berlin Boyd; Rob Thompson with Clayborn Temple; John Jackson, landscape architect and Cleophus Smith, a 1968 striker.
The plaza design will feature 15-foot stainless steel letters that spell out I AM A MAN with quotes from various civil rights leaders printed on the letters. The project, which includes $700,000 for the public art piece and $1 million for construction, is expected to be completed in time for the 50th anniversary of the strike and death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., both of which took place April 1968.
California-based Cliff Garten Studio designed the plaza. The UrbanArt Commission selected the out-of-town firm out of 78 submissions. Memphis landscape artist John Jackson will also help lead the project.
Related: "I AM A MAN Plaza to honor civil rights milestone"
Nearly 100 people filled and surrounded the ceremony tent to listen to speakers. Each shared the importance of commemorating the iconic march and recognized contributions by various organizations to the city and the civil rights movement.
A rendering of the plaza shows the winning sculpture from Cliff Garten Studio of Venice, Calif.
One contributor was Abe Plough, a pharmaceutical manufacturer who funded pay raises for the workers to help end the 1968 strike. Diana Rudner, Plough Foundation chairman of the board of trustees, said Plough requested that his contribution remain anonymous until his death.
“I can’t think of any better legacy than dedicating with the city of Memphis this inspiring I AM A MAN Plaza,” Rudner said. “When people are arguing about when to destroy monuments in public places, it’s no coincidence and with great pride that Memphis is adding a very important new one.”
In August of this year, debates about the presence and significance of Confederate statues grabbed the attention of the nation after peaceful counter protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia attended a white nationalist rally and a man drove his car through the crowd. The violent event has reinvigorated Memphis' fight to remove its two Confederate statues.
Related: "Following Charlottesville, pressure mounts in Memphis to remove two Confederate statues"
Rob Thompson, director of Clayborn Reborn, shared Rudner’s sentiment saying that as people work to preserve their parts in history that have, “too often been overlooked and even forgotten, renewed interests in public monuments, what they mean, and which version of ourselves we choose to memorialize and project to future generations,” is important.
“The more I think about this plaza and what it means in that sense, the more I think it’s truly remarkable for our government to erect an edifice in honor of the very people who had to stand in opposition to their government just 50 years ago,” Thompson said.
A group of the original marchers in the 1968 sanitation workers strike break ground for the I AM A MAN Plaza beside Clayborn Temple. The plaza will honor their legacy in the civil rights movement. (Erica Horton)
“This plaza, in short, is a reminder that democracy can still work, even for those that are too often excluded from the process.”
Cleophus Smith, representing the original group of 1968 strikers, ended the ceremony, sharing memories of working conditions and teared up as he gave remarks on how much those conditions have changed.
“If anyone had told me 49 years ago, that I would be standing here, I wouldn’t have been able to believe it,” he said.
Smith said when he was hired as sanitation worker on April 15, 1967, he was not provided with sufficient clothing or enough water to do his job, but he and other persisted working in the heat and cold to support their families at all costs.
“I thank God this morning for those of you who have given us this recognition… I thank God this morning that the city sanitation department is a great job. It’s a great place to work. I tell young people today, you all have the torch. Take the torch and run with it. Pass the torch on,” Smith said. “I am so glad to be a part of this movement some 49 years later that I never thought I would see. This morning, I am a man.”