Published March 30, 2008
The civil-rights era, punctuated by the King slaying 40 years ago, bred a singular slogan of defiance


Elmore Nickelberry, left, then a Memphis sanitation worker on strike, was shocked at the King slaying: 'I was mad. It hurt me.' His son Terence displays a slogan made famous by the 1968 sanitation strike. CARL JUSTE / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

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I am a man.

If you met me, you would regard it as a self-evident truth. But there was a time it would not have been.

See, I am a black man.

And for most of the years of America's existence, the terms were regarded by many as mutually exclusive. You could be black or you could be a man. You could not be both. Last month marked 40 years since striking sanitation workers in Memphis, virtually all of them black, composed a defiant response:

I AM A Man … the verb capitalized and underlined for emphasis on signs they carried as they marched for fair wages, for better conditions, for their own dignity.

Friday marks 40 years since that era came to its bloody end. Standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he had gone to support the sanitation workers, Martin Luther King was shot and killed.

Forty years later, here I am, a man - a black man in an era where black men, like other men, struggle to define manhood itself. Is it defined by strength? By toughness? By sexual potency? By money?

Forty years ago, it was defined by a single act of courage, black men saying what was unsayable and daring anyone ever to deny it again.

I am a man.