Sculpture, text, and landscape come together to form an important new American Civil Rights Memorial. I AM A MAN Plaza is a large-scale landscape sculpture commissioned to pay tribute to the members of the pivotal 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike and the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A focal point of the Civil Rights Movement, the strike brought Dr. King to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of the Strikers, when he was assassinated. The strike and its
I Am a Man slogan came to represent the struggle of the working poor for racial equality in Memphis and beyond.
Architecture, Construction & Design Awards 2018
Second Award | Category: Cultural (Built)
Architect: Cliff Garten Studio
Team Members: Cliff Garten
Landscape Architect of Record: John Jackson of JPA, Inc.
Poet and spoken word artist: Steve Fox
Commissioned by: UrbanArt Commission and The City of Memphis, Tennessee
Country: United States
I AM A MAN Plaza was unveiled in a public ceremony on April 5, 2018, 50 years after the Sanitation Worker’s won their struggle with the City of Memphis. The project was commissioned by the City of Memphis and the UrbanArt Commission. It was a central component in the city’s “MLK 50” commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The Plaza reconnects the history of the Strike to Clayborn Temple, now under restoration by Clayborn Reborn. It is here that the Strikers began their many marches to City Hall.
The artist led a design team comprised of a Memphis-based landscape architect, poet and broad community participation. The artist and UrbanArt held an open dialogue with the greater Memphis community, who through a series of public workshops selected pertinent historical text and created an original text which is etched into the marble gates defining the Plaza’s entry. The combination of text and sculpture is a meditation on America’s struggle and progress with racism and class inequity since the Sanitation Workers and Dr. Martin Luther King took their historic stand in Memphis.
The 12-feet-tall I AM A MAN sculptural block letters at the center of the memorial plaza are built of bronze on one side of the sculpture and mirror-polished stainless steel on the other side reflecting the dialectical struggle for equality among races in America. The block letters are laser cut with the text from Dr. King’s last speech in Memphis. The open filigree of words allows illumination from within the sculpture to shine as a beacon for the ideals of an equal and colorblind society that the sanitation workers and King aimed to achieve.
The marble gates that stretch along the memorial plaza’s entry are sculpted as if the stone has been pulled into a tension that alludes to the physical violence the sanitation workers faced, and the strain of those momentous days. The gates are carved with quotes from the strikers and strike organizers. The Strike’s timeline of events is carved into a large elliptical granite paving ring framing the lawn and the central plaza.
I AM A MAN Plaza will provide visitors a continuing point of reflection and inspiration on the events of 1968 within this National Historic Landmark site. Here, sculpture and poetry combine to create an interactive and educational experience inspiring future generations to stand up for social justice and positive change.
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