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I Am a Man!

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"I Am a Man!" diorama at the National Civil Rights Museum

I Am a Man is a declaration of civil rights and workers’ rights, often used as a declaration of independence against oppression and against exploitation. The phrase was most notably used among striking union worker advocates and the Civil Rights Movement at the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968, with "I Am a Man!" signs used to argue for respect and adequate pay.[1]

"Am I not a man?"

Engraving of the Wedgwood anti-slavery medallion

Historically, in countries such as the United States and South Africa, the term "boy" was used as a pejorative racist insult towards men of color and slaves, indicating their subservient social status of being less than men.[2] In response, "Am I not a man and a brother?" became a catchphrase used by British and American abolitionists. In 1787, Josiah Wedgwood designed the Wedgwood anti-slavery medallion. He copied the original design from the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade as a cameo in black and white. It was widely reproduced and became a popular fashion statement promoting justice, humanity, and freedom.[3]

The question "Am I not a man?" was brought up again during the Dred Scott decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857.[4] During the Civil Rights Movement at the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968, "I Am a Man!" signs were used to answer the same question.[5] On trial for bringing his son back to Nebraska for burial, from a forced march to Oklahoma, in 1879 Ponca Chief Standing Bear spoke to Judge Dundy in his Omaha trial, "That hand is not the color of yours, but if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. God made us both." Standing Bear (and Native Americans) were granted habeas corpus meaning that they had status in the court and were indeed human beings.[6]

Modern use


"I Am a Man!" has been used as a title for books, plays, and in music[7] and film[8] to assert the rights of all people to be treated with dignity.

"I Am a Man!" was a foundational reference in Derek DelGaudio's theater show "In & Of Itself." DelGaudio created 1,000 "I AM" cards, each with a different descriptor. Before each show, audience members were instructed, "Choose how you wish to be seen."[9]

"I am a man" is one of the many pre-approved social justice messages the NBA allowed their players to display on the back of their jersey during the remainder of the 2019-2020 NBA season. Additional messages include: "Black Lives Matter; Say Their Names; Vote; I Can't Breathe; Justice; Peace; Equality; Freedom; Enough; Power to the People; Justice Now; Say Her Name; Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can); Liberation; See Us; Hear Us; Respect Us; Love Us; Listen; Listen to Us; Stand Up; Ally; Anti-Racist; Speak Up; How Many More; Group Economics; Education Reform; and Mentor" according to the NBAPA.[10]

Untitled (I Am a Man),1988 painting by Glenn Ligon as a reinterpretation of the signs carried during the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968.

Other uses

  • The Elephant Man declares, "I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I ... am ... a ... man!"

See also



  1. ^ Miami Herald
  2. ^ Andersen, Margaret L. (2008). Sociology With Infotrac: Understanding a Diverse Society. Thompson Learning. p. 61. ISBN 9780495007425.
  3. ^ Dabydeen, David (February 17, 2011). "The Black Figure in 18th-century Art". BBC News. Retrieved December 18, 2012.
  4. ^ Am I Not a Man? by Mark L. Shurtleff. Reviewed by Robert Fleming. AALBC.
  5. ^ "Memphis sanitation strike photo". teaching tolerance. 9 July 2014. Retrieved 9 July 2020.
  6. ^ "I Am a Man": Chief Standing Bear's Journey for Justice, Joe Starita 2010.
  7. ^ Ron Miles, "Ron Miles: I Am A Man", All About Jazz, October 27, 2017.
  8. ^ Marc Myers, "Mining the Memphis Sound", The Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2011.
  9. ^ Costa, Mike (2016-07-20). "Derek DelGaudio Is Turning Magic into an L.A. Phenomenon". Los Angeles Magazine. Retrieved 2019-09-23.
  10. ^ "Full list of the messages NBA players will wear on their jerseys as season restarts". USA Today.