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Joe Calhoun remembers Memphis' Sanitation Strike of 1968

Calhoun was a teen at the time who helped make the iconic 'I Am A Man' signs.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Saturday marks the 54th anniversary of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike -- when workers fought for better working conditions and benefits. The strike began after two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were killed in the back of a garbage truck.

It wasn’t just the workers fighting for change -- it was also all of their supporters. When Joe Calhoun moved to Memphis in 1968, he knew he couldn’t accept the status quo. His fight, along with countless others led to better days.

On Beale Street in the Ernest Withers Museum, operations manager Calhoun is surrounded by history he helped create.

"It’s an opportunity to tell people about the past, especially young people so they can understand how we arrived at where we are," Calhoun said.

Calhoun started young. At just 18, he saw the sanitation strikes of 1968 begin and participated in Black Mondays, leaving school to support the workers.

"Eventually my Black Mondays turned into Black Tuesdays, Black Wednesdays, Black Thursdays," Calhoun said.

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He spent many hours downtown, organizing with others in the attic of the historic Clayborn Temple, listening to leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and learning about the intentions of the strike. It later inspired him to join the Memphis Invaders and help lead their march from West Memphis, Arkansas to Little Rock in 1969.

"It allowed me to feel the possibilities of what could be as opposed to what was and what I’d seen," Calhoun said.

In the attic, Calhoun helped make one of the most iconic signs in history, the "I Am A Man" sign.

"It was a declaration of being a human being, being treated like a human being," Calhoun said. "I am a man, treat me like a man."

Sanitation workers fought for better wages, improved working conditions, and against unjust treatment. While they won their fight, those are some things Calhoun said people are still fighting for today.

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"They want to be able to go to work and make enough to be independent, and it’s not happening in a large enough way right now," Calhoun said.

Calhoun still participates in civic action. He marched in the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 and said he always keeps a few "I Am A Man" signs in his car in case he ever needs to protest.

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