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African American History Forum

1968 Sanitation Workers' Strike

(photos by Christopher Questel)

Hundreds of Black Men From all over New York City United at MoCADA to Commemorate the Historic 1968 I AM A MAN Sanitation Worker's Strike

September 29, 2008 - February 1968 saw 1,300 African American Sanitation workers strike to demand their basic rights to organize a union, to gain a living wage, and to garner respect and dignity deserving of all working men and women. The Civil Rights Leader, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., eventually came to Memphis to support the strikers and was subsequently assassinated. From those dramatic events, one phrase emerged that continues to inspire community activists forty years later, "I AM A MAN." In commemoration of the courage, resilience and fortitude of those 1,300 Sanitation Worker's, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) organized the "I AM A MAN" group exhibition in order to further examine the challenges and triumphs of Black Men in America in 2008.

The Opening Reception was held on Thursday, September 25th, 2008 and Black Men from all over New York City gathered together to remember and pay homage to those men by wearing I AM A MAN shirts designed by artist, Derrick Adams (Executive Director of RUSH Art Gallery) on the steps of the Hanson Place 7th Day Adventist Church, which was a former stop on the Underground Railroad. The original 1968 photograph was taken by Ernest Withers and the 2008 echo photograph was taken by internationally acclaimed photographer Chester Higgins.

The Opening Reception began at 3:30pm as African American Men from all over New York City began to arrive at MoCADA to ensure their place in history and to assist the Museum with the preparations for the historic photograph and the viewing of the I AM A MAN exhibition. The program began with a call to the Ancestors by the Indoda Entsha Percussion Ensemble. The Ensemble was dressed royally and their musical presentation consisted of traditional West African rhythms and original compositions, which set the stage for a very moving and spirited program as the men proceeded to the Church to line up for the photograph. The spirit of brotherhood was felt throughout the taking of the photograph as men of all generations stood together to remember a turning point in history. Following the photograph, guest curator, Kevin Powell (author of the Black Male Handbook), was warmly welcomed by the audience as he acknowledged the energy and solidarity of the Black Men in attendance.

The exhibiting artists were presented with greetings, proclamations, and citations from representatives from Governor David Patterson, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and Councilwoman Letitia James. The exhibiting artists include: Radcliff Bailey, Rah Crawford, Russell Frederick, LeRoy Henderson, Charly Palmer Fahamu Pecou, Jefferson Pinder, Juan Sanchez, Jamel Shabazz, Lorenzo Steele, Jr., Hank Willis Thomas, and Ernest Withers. The twelve artists that have been selected for the exhibition are from all over the United States and represent several generations of American history working in several different mediums.

MoCADA's Executive Director Laurie Cumbo welcomed the hundreds of attendees with a warm welcome and gave a historical backdrop of the 1968 I AM A MAN Sanitation Worker's Strike. Ms. Cumbo explained that the original photographer of the 1968 Sanitation Worker's Strike, Ernest Wither's, was also the organizer and creator of the I AM A MAN protest signs, which demonstrates that everyday people can be the catalyst for change. She also took this opportunity to acknowledge the recent opening celebration of the Eagle Academy Middle School for boys, which was founded and created by 100 Black Men in Brownsville in collaboration with Assemblyman William F. Boyland, Jr.

Ms. Cumbo then introduced Dr. Regent Adelaide Sanford who brought a powerful greeting to all of the men assembled before her who eagerly listened to her every commanding word as she so eloquently reinforced the strength, intelligence and perfection that existed in every man standing before her. Regent Sanford remarked that she was excited and proud to see so many beautiful Black men assembled together of all generations to commemorate such a monumental moment in history.

The evening was brought to its climax during the reading of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s final speech. Four generations of men which included Jediael Fraser (8 year old poet from the New York Writer's Coalition), community activist Kevin Powell, State Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, City Councilman Albert Vann and community activist W. Taharka Robinson delivered Dr. King's speech words, "I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord".

This thought provoking exhibition comes at a time when the perception of a Black Man in America is most under introspection ranging from Barack Obama securing the Democratic nomination to the controversial not-guilty verdict in the Sean Bell trial. MoCADA urges parents and educators to visit the museum for this timely and provocative exhibition that will be on view until January 18th, 2009.

Media Contact: Kimberli Gant
80 Hanson Place
Brooklyn, New York 11217
Tel: 718.230.0492
Fax:: 718.230.0246

Curated by Kevin Powell
Organized by Laurie Cumbo and Kimberli Gant
On View: September 25, 2008 - January 18, 2009
(NY Daily News coverage of the 'I Am A Man' exhibit)

The Chester Higgins' I AM A MAN photo to be unveiled October 9th, 2008.

For more information on the I AM A MAN exhibition, visit the links below!

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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