Forty years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. and award-winning photographer Carl Juste initiated a dialogue last weekend that grew out of their emotional, thought-provoking civil rights story and photo project.
First at the Historic Lyric Theater in Miami on April 27 and later that same day at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center near Fort Lauderdale, Pitts and Juste expounded on the issues of black masculinity and identity.
The men first brought those issues to light in the powerful series “I AM A Man: MLK and Memphis: 40 Years Later,” published in The Miami Herald on March 30.
“When you have discussions about race with white people and often times with black people, there is this sense that there is no history, that everybody thinks that the conditions that we are dealing with and the challenges that we face just sprang up out of nowhere,’’ Pitts said. “So, it is important for me to be able to write stories…that explain who we are, where we are, why we are, how we are and how we came to this point.”
The “I AM A Man’’ project is a firsthand account of those who paved the way for today’s generation. But, according to Pitts, the men who helped to
assert the dignity of black males “are aged and dying and largely forgotten.”
Uncovering the emotional occurrences, Pitts and Juste ripped open the sutured wounds of Joe Warren, 86; Ben Jones, 71; Elmore Nickelberry, 76; and Ozell Ueal, 68; who, with a little prodding, recalled their struggles as sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee and their demand for manhood in an era when black masculinity and dignity did not exist.
Told in their own words, the men recount how they were treated like the garbage they collected; of having maggots in their heads from the scum that leaked out of the buckets when they had rusted through; of having to walk home because they smelled too bad to ride the buses; how they worked from sun up to sun down but only got paid for eight hours at $1.27 an hour; and having white bosses with guns who called them “boy.”
“They felt a garbage man wasn’t nothing,” Nickelberry said in an audio recording that was part of a brief multimedia presentation at both events. “And they figured they could treat us any way they wanted to treat us…Make you feel bad, ‘cause you know you wasn’t no garbage. You supposed to been a man.”
Then came the final straw.
In 1968, Echol Cole and Robert Walker climbed into the back of a garbage truck to get out of the rain. The hydraulic ram of the truck, which the men had reported as in need of repair, started up by itself, and crushed the two men.
Prompted by the deaths, sanitation, sewer and drainage workers joined civil rights workers in a monumental strike for higher wages and better working conditions. They took to the streets with signs that spoke volumes—a simple slogan that defied white America and demanded the respect and dignity due to all men and women: “I AM A Man.’’
Pitts and Juste told about 100 people in Miami and 60 in Broward that their collaborative efforts continue the fight of the strikers. They said they reconnected to this chapter of the civil rights movements so that today’s generation can understand the roots of racism and its present-day legacy.
The video presentation that preceded the comments from Pitts and Juste included archival video footage and photos as a timeline of the events – the beginning of the strike on February 12; the march that turned violent; King’s last speech; and his death and burial and the end of the strike on April 16, 1968.
The project in the newspaper and on the paper’s website also combines the outstanding writing talents of Pitts, audio of the sanitation workers telling the story in their own words, and Juste’s superb re-creation of the drama of the historic strike in black and white photos.
In the photos, Warren, Jones, Nickelberry and his son, Terence, and Ueal hold duplicate signs that read: “I AM A Man.’’
Warren has tears in his eyes; Nickelberry holds up his head in pride, and the Lorraine Motel sign can be seen in the backdrop.
Pitts and Juste said that while it was hard for them to hear and see the pain of the sanitation workers, it was necessary because 40 years later, black men continue to struggle to define their manhood. The vicious cycle of shame and frustration continues.
“It does affect us today and it does come out of our past. It does come out of our system. But we need to do more – and fast – to get them to feel that they are more important to society,” said Julie Hunter, acting director of the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center.
Forty years after the strike and King’s assassination, all the men in The Miami Herald profiles continue to work for the Memphis sanitation department, except for Warren, who is now retired.
The memories are still evident in their eyes and voices.
In the eyes of Pitts, they are all heroes because, he said, “they stood up for something and made me possible.”
Photo by Sumner Hutcheson III. Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. discusses the Memphis sanitation workers strike.
ON THE NET
To read The Miami Herald series online, log onto www.miamiherald.com/multimedia/news/iamaman/