Sanitation workers from the 1968 strike that drew Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. to Memphis broke ground Dec. 11 for the planned I AM A MAN Plaza adjacent to the historic Clayborn Temple. The church served as a organizational hub for the strike. Memphis. Photo by Micaela Watts.

Surviving members of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and city officials broke ground Monday for the I AM A MAN Plaza, a central component in the city’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in this city.

Representing sanitation workers present at the ceremony, Cleophus Smith recalled those days spent working for the City of Memphis, which included toiling under deadly conditions (two black workers were crushed by malfunctioning garbage trucks) while being underpaid, forcing 1,300 Memphis Department of Public Works workers to make the decision to strike.

“We had some difficult days,” said Smith, who stood in awe of the racial solidarity on display, saying, “To see that we have come from a struggle into such a time as this as to where we can work in harmony.”

After thanking the sanitation workers for their role in the civil rights movement, Mayor Jim Strickland also acknowledged actions by Mayor Henry Loeb, who created conditions for strike, drawing King to amplify his message of economic justice as part of his Poor People’s Campaign to bring all people together to demand better jobs, justice and education.

“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” Strickland said.

Cleophus Smith (in the brown suit) stands with fellow sanitation workers with whom he once walked a picket line. Photo by Micaela Watts.

The plaza will be a collaboration between the nonprofit UrbanArt Commission and out-of-town artists, fueled by nearly $700,000 in grants — $139,100 for design and $560,900 for fabrication.

The plaza will be developed in conjunction with ongoing renovations to Clayborn Temple, which served as the organizing hub from which the iconic I AM A MAN placards were distributed.

Clayborn developer, Rob Thompson, marveled at the ability of the city to create a structure that emphasized an ugly side of its own history: “This is a tangible moment to our real and true history. Even the embarrassing parts.”

California-based Cliff Garten Studio was selected from among 78 applications to design the plaza. Memphis-based John Jackson of JPA Inc. will serve as the designing landscape architect.

According to the commission’s request for qualifications, “The City of Memphis hopes that the space will serve as a point of reflection and invite all people to a peaceful, interactive and educational experience that supports the advancement of equity, justice and positive social change.”

Ironically, having a designated space for peaceful public assembly coincides with a proposed city ordinance seeking changes in the permit process for assemblies, parades and runs. The proposal seeks to have organizers submit permit requests 90 to 180 days before an event instead of the current 14 days, a process local activists suggest is a backdoor route to thwarting the constitutionally protected freedom to assemble.

For his part, Strickland says he hopes the space will be a place for “hope and inspiration.”

“So many of us don’t know the sacrifices that these men made 50 years ago, and how difficult that was,” Strickland said. “They’ve inspired us to do better. And we’ve made progress in Memphis, but we have so much more room to go.”

Timing-wise, the site adjacent to Clayborn Temple is auspicious for its intended purpose and past history: In February, the soon-to-be plaza served as a gathering point for thousands marching with Memphis We Belong pro-immigration activists in response to President Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban. Since that march, the space has hosted numerous other public assemblies.

This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.