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"I Am a Man!": Race, Masculinity, 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike

On March 28, 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. directed a march of thousands of African-American protesters down Beale Street, one of the major commercial thoroughfares in Memphis, Tennessee. King's plane had landed late that morning, and the crowd was already on the verge of conflict with the police when he and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) took their places at the head of the march. The marchers were demonstrating their support for 1300 striking sanitation workers, many of whom wore placards that proclaimed, "I Am a Man." As the throng advanced down Beale Street, some of the younger strike supporters ripped the protest signs off the the wooden sticks that they carried. These young men, none of whom were sanitation workers, used the sticks to smash glass storefronts on both sides of the street. Looting led to violent police retaliation. Troopers lobbed tear gas into groups of protesters and sprayed mace at demonstrators unlucky enough to be in range. High above the fray in City Hall, Mayor Henry Loeb sat in his office, confident that the strike was illegal, and that law and order would be maintained in Memphis.

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