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    -  -  -  -  -      I AM A MAN      -  -  -  -  -   

 

 

I had the privilege to be the Director of the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum (MRNSM) for its opening in 2000, in the Gibson Guitar Factory building in Downtown Memphis, through July, 2003. The beauty of the MRNSM is that the “story line” was researched and developed by the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and was the first affiliated (Smithsonian) museum outside of the system of museums that the Smithsonian operates in Washington, D.C. Also significant to me was the fact that it was a credible firm outside of Memphis looking over our entire country and making this powerful statement:

“In the quest to identify the roots of America’s music, all roads led to Memphis.”

But MRNSM is more than just a “music museum”. Though the prevailing theme throughout the galleries is obviously music from the delta and the music that developed on Beale Street and in the studios in Memphis in the middle of the 20th century, the story is also about civil rights, living conditions, freedom and creativity spawned by the wave of out-migration from the rural areas of the delta and the in-migration to Memphis, the urban center of the mid-south, as well as other cities up the Mississippi River (St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit).

In 2000, while the staff of WONDERS: The International Cultural Series, was acting collectively as curator and local operator for MRNSM’s non-profit citizen board and liaison for the Smithsonian on all issues, I was asked to loan a poster in my possession. That simple 12” X 18” poster contained only four words – all capitals and a total of just seven letters = I AM A MAN.

Now, fast forward to April, 2010, and MRNSM has developed an outstanding program entitled “Liner Notes: Words Behind The Music” with Rhodes College’s “Crossroads To Freedom” digital archive project. Rhodes College students will record, preserve and disseminate oral history interviews relating to the city’s rich musical history and legacy. The students are Fellows in the Rhodes College “Crossroads To Freedom” digital archive program and the Mike Curb Institute, and already have extensive experience in conducting Memphis oral histories.

On April 1, new interviews were recorded with three icons of the Memphis music scene – John Fry, Al Bell and Eddie Ray – after hours in the galleries of the MRNSM. These interviews will be combined with eighty hours of already recorded interviews (by the Smithsonian) for the inception of the museum in 1999-2000. I was invited by the MRNSM director, John Doyle, to attend the first session on April 1 and I was fascinated by the whole scene in the galleries from an ongoing performance by Blind Mississippi Morris and Brad Webb, to the announcements, explanation and importance of the process by John Doyle, Rhodes College President William Troutt, Mike Curb and Al Bell. And, there will be more interviews in the future – what a terrific program!

I was able to get some alone time with Al Bell, former CEO of both STAX and Motown Records, which was a real thrill for me. I explained to him the process in which in 1989, the Mud Island staff save the STAX tile wall from the wrecking ball at 926 E. McLemore Avenue (later re-installed fourteen years later in its original place, with the guidance of Deanie Parker then of Soulsville USA, when the STAX Museum of American Soul Music opened in 2003). Al said that when he has passed the tile wall on his visits to STAX, he recognized the tile wall as being the original and always wondered what the story was behind its being saved returned. While he delighted in discovering that information on April 1, I took advantage of the proximity of the museum and showed him Ben Branch’s saxophone and the “I AM A MAN” poster that I have on loan to MRNSM.

In the Spring of 1968, Memphis was in turmoil as the black sanitation workers went on strike for equal benefits to white sanitation workers. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis to peacefully support the black workers in the situation with the City, however there were factions on both sides of the issue that were not going to let a peaceful and reasonable solution be met.

On March 28, 1968, Dr. King held what was to be the last march of his life in Memphis with the route stepping off at Clayborn Temple on Hernando Street and Pontotoc Avenue, then proceeding to Beale Street to Main Street to City Hall. But when turning onto Beale Street, rival factions proceeded to disrupt the peaceful march by throwing rocks, breaking storefront windows and creating general havoc. Capt. Jake Meanley of the Memphis Queen Line and a Downtown resident in the 1960s happened upon a discarded “I AM A MAN” poster laying on one of the streets and brought it to his quarters in the sub stage of the MEMPHIS SHOWBOAT, moored at the cobblestone wharf at the Foot of Monroe. (The poster fell behind a piece of furniture and was not re-discovered until 1995.)

Dr. King left the city only to return for another march the next week on April 4 or 5. While waiting for a court decision to allow the march, Dr. King delivered his “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” speech at Mason Temple on the evening of
April 3. Prior to approval being granted for the march, Dr. King was felled by an assassin’s bullet while on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, after having just spoken to Ben Branch, the saxophonist. As a tenth grader in East Memphis in 1968, I remember that Memphis became a City in the national spotlight as never before. I can recall “Tanks On Beale” and the dusk to dawn curfew that our City was placed under for about a week. Coretta Scott King returned on April 8, 1968 after the funeral services of Dr. King in Atlanta, to complete the proposed April 4th march to Memphis City Hall.


Fast forward to 1995 again, and as General Manager of the Memphis Queen Line, a decision was made to use the sub stage of the MEMPHIS SHOWBOAT for another purpose, as Capt. Jake had purchased a residence on Mud Island. While moving furniture and equipment, the “I AM A MAN” poster was uncovered. Capt. Jake offered it to me (rather than tossing it in the garbage) as he knew that I enjoyed all aspects of Memphis history, particularly Downtown and river related topics.

In 1998, I noticed a newspaper story that featured another “I AM A MAN” poster which had been bought at auction at Sotheby’s in New York for $5,000. I kept the poster at home until being approached by the Smithsonian for the loan, which actually occurred in December, 1999. It was not until February, 2000 that I was offered the MRNSM Director’s position, and oddly was able to approve the official paperwork as lender and curator! The credit line in the gallery reads “On Loan From Jimmy Ogle and Jake Meanley”, but unfortunately Capt. Jake fell ill in the Spring of 2000 and passed away (June 10) before ever being able to visit and enjoy the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. At a February 25, 2010 auction at Swann Auction Galleries in New York, an “I AM A MAN” poster was purchased for $34,000 by an anonymous bidder, after a minimum bid of $4,000 was set and an estimated value of between $8,000-10,000 had been placed on the poster.

While working at MRNSM, I had the wonderful privilege of being able to talk with many of the living legends that made the substance of the museum – and actually “lived the story” that was being recreated in the galleries. One such contributor was Dr. Ernest Withers, famed photographer, whom has authored several books and exhibits of his work that spanned over sixty years of Memphis and delta history, events, places and people. Dr. Withers once told me that on the eve of the March 28 march, word was circulating that there would be trouble at the next day’s march. So, he and few others bought some stakes and spent the evening nailing and tacking the posters to the stakes. In previous marches and sit-ins, all of the posters had either been hand-carried or had a string tied to the top and draped around each marcher’s neck, leaving the hands free. It is noticeable in the pictures of the march of March 28, that the posters were tacked to signs so that when trouble arose, the posters could be pulled off the stakes, and the stakes used for protection (rather than a flimsy poster). As the day’s events unfurled, the stakes were indeed needed.

Over the years, I have come to realize how rare this poster really is, and as far as I know, it is the only one in existence in Memphis, Tennessee. Wimmer Bothers, a local printing company, had apparently printed up two batches of five hundred each for the marches. The poster is on display in the sixth gallery at the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, which is located at FedExForum (Beale & Third) (www.memphisrocknsoul.org).




Other sidebars for “I AM A MAN”:

I AM A MAN: From Memphis, A Lesson In Life
Deanie Parker is a former employee, musician, writer and performer at STAX in the 1960s and 1970s, and then later a member of the Board of Directors at MRNSM and Executive Director of Soulsville USA. Deanie is the Executive Producer of this 27-minute documentary film about Elmore Nickleberry, whose family story is told in and the sanitation workers strike of 1968 is explored. On January 30, 2010, the film received four 2010 Emmy Awards from the Mid-South Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, including Best Historical Documentary, Best Composer/Arranger, Best Directing and Best Writing For Programs. www.iamamanthemovie.com

I AM A MAN and Hampton Sides – Hellhound On His Trail (see below)
Hampton Sides grew up in the Poplar corridor in Memphis and is a graduate of Memphis University School ’80. I have not seen Hampton in almost forty years since he was a play mate of my younger brother (John) at PDS and I was a car pool driver. Hampton is a nationally acclaimed author of several books including Blood And Thunder (Kit Carson), Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten Epic Of World War II’s Most Dramatic Mission (Bataan Death March), and is Editor-At-Large for OUTDOORS magazine having written articles for magazines such as National Geographic, The New Yorker, Esquire and has appeared on many national television news programs. Apparently, Universal Pictures has picked up the rights for a movie adaptation of Hampton’s “Hellhound” book.

I AM A MAN and Memphis Magazine, April 2010 Issue
Pick up a copy of this month’s issue of Memphis magazine, and on the cover is a picture of a marcher in front of the Lorraine Motel wearing an “I AM Still A MAN” poster posing for a story on page 28 of the same name. Mary Helen Randall writes of circumstances with the sanitation workers that have and have not changed in 42 years, and the issues still confronting the City today. Page 34 begins excerpts from another book by Hampton Sides entitled Hellhound On His Trail: The Stalking Of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And The International Hunt For His Assassin. Eight pages of detail cover the triggering episode in 1968 (tragic work related accidental deaths of two sanitation workers on the job) and leading up to Dr. King’s last march on March 28.

I AM A MAN at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, 3030 Central Avenue, 320-6320
The Ernest Withers Portfolio records Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy and other prominent civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 60s, including their ride on the first desegregated bus in Montgomery, AL. He also documented the Little Rock Central High desegregation crisis, the Sanitation Workers Strike in Memphis, as well as many other catalytic events in the Civil Rights movement.
This exhibit is part of the Pink Palace Connections Exhibit Series, which is aimed at building its African-American collection of artifacts. Ultimately, may of these artifacts will be part of the new permanent exhibits. The exhibit is on display from February 13 through October 24.

 

Next “Detour”:
STAX Wall Tile

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