This is something that might be worked into a sermon next year, so if any of my readers attend my church, be prepared; for those that don’t attend, here’s a work in progress.
In the civil rights protests of the 1960s, one of the most iconic slogans read “I Am A Man.” Black men would wear sandwich boards or hold signs with this written in big block lettering (and sometimes underlined). To me, this really struck home when seen in the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ strike in 1968—the protests that Martin Luther King spoke at when he was assassinated. I find it important because of the way the strike started.
Sanitation work might not seem to be high risk, but it is. Long shift hours, operating very heavy and dangerous equipment in all types of weather, sometimes working with hazardous materials—as part of the job or unintentionally. However, at the time Memphis was still part of the South and certain laws were in place dealing with white and black workers. In rainy weather, blacks were not allowed to shelter from the rain inside the cab of the truck; they were only allowed to go in the back of the compressor where the garbage was collected. And that is where Echol Cole call and Robert Walker, family men both, were forced lay to escape the weather when the compressor accidentally turned on.
As much as “I Am A Man” was a cry for acceptance of these workers’ human rights and dignity, it was equally as pointed a scream of “I don’t deserve to die this way.” Such is the meaning of the new hashtag slogan Black Lives Matter. With the public deaths of so many black men at the hands of police officers and the equally public unwillingness of the justice system to hold such officers accountable, we witness how cheap the lives of black people are considered. The countless stories—told and untold—of black people mistreated by the justice system, from initial police contact to trials and sentencing procedures, are disheartening and tragic and when internalized over decades or centuries is no wonder why people of color feel like their lives are disposable; they are proven that way over and over and repeated generation to generation.
I kind of get why white people have added to the slogan with the hashtag All Lives Matter: they want to remind us that everyone’s life matters including theirs’. TBut we all know this. Black people are not saying Black lives mean more, but they ARE saying we don’t matter less; and we ARE saying it because to the eyes of many people and institutions, we DO mean less. Saying “Black Lives Matter” is the same as saying “I Am A Man” for the same reason: to remind ourselves AS WELL AS society. We matter and we need to affirm that for ourselves and society.