Wednesday, April 2, 2008


Forty years ago, two Memphis sanitation workers were crushed to death in the back of a garbage truck where they had sought shelter from the rain. The compactor had apparently malfunctioned. The deaths galvanized a spontaneous strike by sanitation workers for better pay (the high end of the scale was about $1.80 an hour), better equipment (the trucks were old and in disrepair, which probably contributed to the worker’s deaths) and better working conditions (no breaks, no place to relieve yourself, no shower to wash the stink of garbage off yourself, 15 minutes for lunch, abuse from gun-toting supervisors and you had to walk through people’s yards, cutting and hauling away trees, gathering garbage, picking up dead animals, because the city did not require residents to put garbage in cans or take it to the curb.)

But a strike about labor issues quickly became one about race. The workers were virtually all African-American and the city’s response was by turns racist, patronizing and brutal.

Today, the strike is remembered for two things: 1) it led to the death of Martin Luther King, who was in Memphis to support the strikers when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet; 2) the iconic images of the strikers wearing placards bearing a statement that was, in the context of the time, incendiary: I AM A MAN.

Forty years later, Carl Juste and Leonard Pitts, Jr. travel the Southeast looking at the state of black manhood in 2008 through six prisms: dignity, education, racial violence, crime and poverty; sports, style. Each prism will be reported from a city with symbolic resonance, but will include interviews and reportage from elsewhere in the country. The overarching title: I AM A Man.

Above is the intial project written by Leonard Pitts that we proposed to our paper, The Miami Herald. Several meetings later, the project was scaled down to covering only the surviving garbagemen of Union 1733 who walk out during the Memphis Worker's Strike of 1968 and the effects of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., on the minds and spirits of those Memphis strikers. The project was reduced to one city and a short stay in Memphis.

It does not take a rocket scientist to understand reasons behind the scaling down of such an important project. Like everything else in the news business, priorities have changed. Many newspapers are under extreme pressures to make high double digit profit margins, reducing cost while curtailing or at best reducing the impact of declining circulation and ad revenues. To The Miami Herald's credit, they did create the space and found the resources to make sure the project got good play, but The Miami Herald is not the average newspaper, nor does it operate in an average market. It took the strength of many staffers, editors, designers, to bring our project to life. Though shorter in stature, it remains strong and still powerful.

Where do we go from here? That is the million dollar question. How do we produce stories, photos, essays, and meaningful pieces about people of color in this current business environment? Editors, managers, and publishers will be the first to remind you their reasons for scaling down without ever offering a single reason why we need to build up, expand, engage, and better inform our readers. In the last four years, many of my friends, and in my opinion great journalists, have either quit, moved on to another career, or just fallen silent at critical moment when newspapers need them the most. Newsrooms continue to shrink, our workload continues to rise, and at best most wages remain stagnent (or have deminished) due to the high cost of surviving and low raises. We will have starved the 'Watchdog' to death and wonder why he/she no longer barks.

However, all is not lost. Just as those before us dared to state the obvious, so must we. We must be prepared to declare our importance not as individuals but as an institution. Big business, big government, special interests, and many other entities would love to see a smaller role of print journalism. They have sold us the power of the internet as 'the second coming' as many of us abandon our faith in order to save our flesh.

It has been forty years since the assassination of King, I find his words more powerful than ever:

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And 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 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."

- Martin Luther King, Jr. 04/03/68

I can only hope we have the same resolve and courage to save our profession, or we will have not only abandoned our past, but have dammed our future.

Here are several links of interest:

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