- I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tennessee, March 28, 1968, Ernest C. Withers, Gelatin Silver Print.
On a rainy February day, two black sanitation workers sought shelter in the barrel of their garbage truck because they were not allowed to stand on white-owned porches. The two men were crushed after the truck malfunctioned. This sparked strikes across the city and garnered support from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who made multiple visits to the city. King would give his famous and final speech, the "I've Been to the Mountaintop" address, to sanitation workers and strike supporters on April 3. He was shot the next day outside his motel room.
A man walks past hundreds of African-American protestors in the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike. The protestors hold signs that read "I AM A MAN." Halfway past the crowd, he turns and looks right into the camera of famous Civil Rights photographer Ernest C. Withers.
The photo has gone on to be one of the most iconic pictures in the Civil Rights movement and has inspired derivative works from Glenn Lignon and Hank Willis Thomas. It is the focal point for "I AM," a new exhibition at the Tremaine Gallery at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut.
The exhibit, comprised of black-and-white artwork from African-American artists, aims to capture the black-American identity. Terri Moore, co-director of the gallery, says her mission "is to hang shows that are not only informative but also strong in visual presence." She sought out Hotchkiss alum and passionate art collector Raymond J. McGuire for his extensive collection of African-American art. The show includes about 20 pieces, and all have an "intimate portrait of a voyeuristic moment in time," says Moore.
Works from artists such as Lignon, Thomas, LeRoy Henderson, Lorna Simpson, Ron Tarver, Carrie Mae Weems, and Gary Simmons will join Withers on the walls of the Tremaine Gallery. All of the artwork is politically or socially charged. Untitled by Simpson portrays the torso of a cross-armed African-American woman wearing a white shift. Printed on the photograph is the declaration "A lie is not a shelter, discrimination is not protection, isolation is not a remedy, a promise is not a prophylactic." Andres Serrano, who will also be featured, is known for his Piss Christ, a photo of Jesus on the Crucifix floating in a jar of the artist's urine.
But perhaps the most intriguing piece is Withers's photo. After the photographer died in 2007, his FBI record was released, revealing his status as a government informant. Withers was trusted by many Civil Rights leaders and photographed landmark events like King's ride on the first desegregated bus in Alabama, and Emmett Till's murder trial. The extent of his dealings with the FBI are still unclear.
The "I AM" exhibition at the Tremaine Gallery at the Hotchkiss School runs from January 4 to February 6, with a closing reception on February 2 from 4 to 6pm. (860) 435-2591; Hotchkiss.org/arts.