When the Reverend James Lawson shouted “I am a man,” fifty years ago today, thousands of Memphis garbage strikers first echoed him—then millions of Americans did.
Tragically, James Lawson’s civil rights slogan defined Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final crusade—and unintentionally helped doom King. Lawson invited King to lead the Memphis garbageman’s strike that spring. That visit placed King in the path of the sniper’s bullet on April 4, 1968.
King endorsed Lawson’s expansion of the Civil Rights agenda, from demanding political rights to seeking economic justice. Memphis’s mostly African-American sanitation workers were fed up with minimal benefits and laughable wages—between $1.60 and $1.90 per hour. On February 1, a malfunctioning trash compactor crushed two men seeking shelter from a downpour inside their garbage trucks—yet their families received no compensation. Workers protested. The struggle escalated, exacerbated by Mayor Henry Loeb’s brusqueness.
The strike began February 12. Within three days, ten thousand tons of refuse were rotting on Memphis streets. Every day, as the strikers marched at noon, the Memphis police billy-clubbed and pepper-sprayed them. On February 24, fuming after a particularly violent confrontation the day before, the Reverend James Lawson delivered his stirring message.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1928, raised in Ohio, by the time he was 19 this son and grandson of Methodist ministers was licensed to preach. Starting in 1951, the Reverend Lawson served fourteen months in prison as a Conscientious Objector. When paroled, he became a Methodist missionary in India, harmonizing Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent teachings with Jesus’s love-thy-neighbor-preaching.
While studying at Oberlin College after returning to America in 1955, Lawson met King. Lawson said he “planned to come south to work in the movement one day.” King replied: "Come now. Don't wait. We don't have anyone like you in the South." Lawson understood that King “didn't have a Black clergy person who had that kind of background,” combining prison, India, Gandhi, and Jesus.
Lawson transferred to Vanderbilt University in 1958. He and other activists targeted Nashville, Tennessee, a moderate city by Southern standards, with few laws imposing segregation. “Jim Crow” was simply local custom.
Lawson began training activists in what became legendary workshops, including the future Congressman John L. Lewis and Washington’s future mayor, Marion Barry. Lawson criticized organizations like the NAACP for being too legalistic, too complacent. He and his allies were saying to the black community: “we did not have to settle for passivity; we did not have to settle for this evil. And that each of us had a responsibility, in whatever way necessary to begin to get liberated, begin to see that we had to organize to do it. The system cannot exist without our consent to it.”
Lawson preached that non-violence was not a passive act. Like war, it involved “suffering and sacrifice.” Instead of inflicting pain, Lawson taught, “we absorb the suffering that the opponent is ready to throw at us…. it's a time-honored Christian dogma. Instead of putting it out, [Jesus] took it in. And in taking it in forgave it and overcame it.”
A big-picture thinker, amid the strategizing, drilling and role-playing, Lawson recalls, “We brought in international issues. We related issues of race and jobs and economy and what not, so it wasn’t a one-stroke thing. We did not teach going to the lunch counters for the purpose of eating a hamburger.” Lawson understood that humans will sacrifice and suffer – as long as they feel connected to a community, history, and a great cause. And his goal was grand, calling the Civil Rights movement “a moment in history when God saw fit to call America back from the depths of moral depravity and onto His path of righteousness.”
By 1959, Lawson and his comrades were preparing for sit-ins and then boycotts in downtown Nashville. Lawson says Black women helped determine the target. “You men don't do the shopping for our families, we do the shopping and we shop downtown,” he recalls them saying. “And there's no place downtown where we can stop to rest our feet. If we have children, there's no place downtown where we can stop to give them a rest, get them a cup of ice cream. And we do get insults downtown.”
Thanks to Lawson, the Nashville Sit-ins and Boycott became a model for other cities. Wave after wave of quiet, polite, protestors sitting respectfully flummoxed the authorities. So did a constructive dialogue with the merchants and the mayor.
When the protestors upped the pressure by boycotting businesses, the merchants caved. Lawson brokered an agreement whereby Black citizens gradually, quietly, started integrating restaurants and department stores in small groups. The minimal fanfare, with reporters’ collaboration, limited the backlash. A campaign which began on February 13, 1960, triumphed by May 10.
While enhancing Lawson’s reputation, the struggle disrupted his education – Vanderbilt expelled him. Lawson moved to Memphis in 1962, becoming pastor of Centenary Methodist Church there. But he moved with the movement. When Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech rang out in the 1963 March on Washington, Lawson was there, rallying with him. When Bull Connor unleashed his cops on the 1965 Selma Voting Rights protesters, Lawson was there, absorbing blows with them. And when activists pushed for Open Housing in Chicago in 1966, Lawson was there, shouting with them.
It was, therefore, perfectly natural, that when his city erupted over the exploitation blacks endured from municipal bosses, Lawson was there too, leading them. That February 24, in Memphis, Lawson was fed up. “For at the heart of racism,” he proclaimed, “is the idea that a man is not a man, that a person is not a person. You are human beings. You are men. You deserve dignity.”
A strike organizer, Bill Lucy, had been pushing the slogan “I am a Man.” “He’s treating you like children,” Lucy said of Mayor Loeb on February 13, “and this day is over because you are men and must stand together as men and demand what you want.” Asserting African-American personhood defied what had become that ugly, demeaning, unmanning, word for Black men: “boy.” In 1787, the British anti-slavery activist Josiah Wedgewood designed what became a popular medallion in England and the North, exclaiming “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” In 1853, Sojourner Truth proclaimed “Ain’t I a Woman?” And in 1955, Bo Diddley’s hit, “I am a Man” – M-A-N, built on Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” exclaiming: “Everybody knows I’m here.”
“I am a Man” captured the civil rights movement’s fight for dignity. “’I am a man’ meant freedom,” one sanitation worker Taylor Rogers recalled. “All we wanted was some decent working conditions, and a decent salary. And be treated like men, not like boys.” It galvanized the strikers – and their supporters nationwide. Visiting Memphis, King crowned Lawson “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.”
Unfortunately, their March 28 march turned violent. Stripping off the “I am a Man” signs, some workers smashed storefronts with the now-naked sticks. Seeking to restore his Gandhian credibility, King returned to Memphis for another march. While resisting an injunction, he delivered his “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” unexpected final sermon. He singled out Lawson as a “noble” leader, who’s “been to jail for struggling … but he’s still going on, fighting for the rights of his people.” Then, eerily, King preached: “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.”
After King’s assassination the next day, it still took a 40,000-person silent march, led by King’s widow Coretta Scott King, before Mayor Loeb recognized the union and increased wages and benefits.
From 1974 through 1999, Lawson led the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. He continued embodying what King in Memphis had called a “dangerous unselfishness,” demanding social justice, believing that “being a pastor meant to work to change the social environment.” He continued living the Gospel, even ministering to King’s killer, James Earl Ray, explaining: “I did not see it as something apart from the love of God or the love of Jesus.”
In 2006, 46 years after Vanderbilt expelled him, Lawson returned as a Visiting Professor. It was 6424 miles from Jerusalem. And more work remained. But James Lawson – and his people – had indeed reached the Promised Land.
FOR FURTHER READING
Henry Hampton & Steve Fayer, Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s, 1991.
Sanford Wexler, The Civil Rights Movement Eye Witness History, 1993.
Kent Wong & Ana Luz González, Nonviolence and Social Movements: The Teachings of Rev. James M Lawson Jr., 2016.