Oh Freedom! Ernest C. Withers

Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights Through American Art
An image of figures lined up with signs that read "I AM A MAN"

Ernest C. Withers (1922–2007), Sanitation workers assemble in front of Clayborn Temple for a solidarity march, Memphis, TN, March 28, 1968, 1968, gelatin silver print, 15 15/16 x 19 13/16 in., © Ernest C. Withers Trust, Memphis, TN, Collection of National Museum of African American History and Culture, Museum purchase, TR2009-35.9

Student Questions

1. Enlarge the photo and look carefully at the people. What similarities do you see among them? What differences?

2. What do their signs say? 

3. Why do you think they needed to make that statement?

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About This Artwork

On a bleak March day in Memphis, Tennessee, a group of sanitation workers strike for safer working conditions and decent wages. Each carries a sign proclaiming what should be obvious: I AM A MAN. Behind the orderly first row stands a tightly packed crowd, also holding signs aloft. Their bodies and their signs form a solid, seemingly impenetrable wall that boldly joins all the men together. Ernest C. Withers captured this solidarity by taking his photograph from the middle of the street, where he composed the image so that the men extend from one edge to the other. This arrangement underscores a feature that unifies the demonstrators: they all appear to be African Americans. But it also reveals their diversity: some are tall, others short; some are portly, others thin; some are dressed formally, others wear casual clothes. These differences confirm their individuality, driving home the truth on their placards.

Martin Luther King Jr. led this march as part of his Poor People's Campaign just a few days before his assassination in Memphis. There he gave his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech to the same group pictured in this photograph. In his speech, King emphasized the connection between local civil rights struggles, like this one in Memphis, and what King would call "the human rights revolution"—a global movement that sought to unify the poor and disenfranchised. King said:

Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world.... The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee—the cry is always the same: "We want to be free." ...[I]f something isn't done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.

Presenting a unified group of ordinary people who, despite their differences, risked their livelihoods and safety, Withers's photograph embodies King's call for unity.

About This Artist

Ernest C. Withers (born Memphis, TN 1922–died Memphis, TN 2007)

For fifty years, Ernest Withers worked as a photographer, primarily in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee—an important city in civil rights history. His business card explained his philosophy: “The Pictures Tell the Story.” Withers attended the Army School of Photography during his service in World War II and used those skills when he returned home to Memphis. There he earned his reputation for capturing life in the segregated South. Withers created a series portraying the city’s music scene, including images of famous singers, such as Elvis Presley, B. B. King, Aretha Franklin, and Ike and Tina Turner. However, Withers is best known for photographing important moments in the Civil Rights movement and for his own activism. For example, he self-published a pamphlet, illustrated with his own photos, about Emmett Till’s murder and trial. Present in Martin Luther King Jr.’s hotel room the night he was shot, the photographer documented events and places related to the assassination, including the bathroom from which James Earl Ray shot King. In 2010, Withers’s reputation as the foremost civil rights chronicler sustained a blow when the New York Times reported that, from about 1968 to 1970, Withers gave the F.B.I. information about civil rights activists.

Related Material

I am a man poster

I Am A Man poster, designed for the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, 1968. National Museum of African American History and Culture

On February 1, 1968, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, two black Memphis garbage collectors, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. The city’s lackluster response to this event, which epitomized years of neglect for its black citizens, inspired a strike that galvanized thousands of city workers and captured the nation’s attention. This poster’s bold yet simple sign, created for the strike, makes a powerful statement that speaks both to the particular conditions that led to the strike—as if to say "I am a man … not trash"—and to the broader goals of equality and justice.

A lithograph for poor people's campaign

Herman "Kofi" Bailey, Poor People's Campaign, 1968. Offset lithograph. National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Susan J. Helms

The Poor People’s Campaign, organized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, placed the African American struggle for equality into a broader campaign for economic justice—including access to jobs and housing—regardless of race. The campaign extended the reach of the Civil Rights movement and increased public support across the country.