by Joan Allison | photo by Greg Campbell
(Photo caption: Construction of the I AM A MAN Plaza is underway, and set to open in April. Above photo is a plaza rendering provided by the City of Memphis.)
Most people who want to understand the civil rights movement in Memphis do not visit Clayborn Temple. They visit the National Civil Rights Museum, the site of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The museum is both a memorial and a stunning centerpiece to all information on the movement. Clayborn Temple, however, was the place where the Memphis movement was incubated – and hatched. In 1968, when Dr. King came to Memphis to help the workers in the sanitation strike, the wheels of the movement were already turning at Clayborn.
Clayborn Temple sits at the corner of Hernando and Pontotoc streets (just off of Linden Ave.). In the 60s, its proximity to Beale Street, downtown, and public housing made it an ideal location for sanitation workers to meet and organize the sanitation strike, and for the strikers to muster before their marches to city hall.
The church’s white, Canadian minister, Rev. Malcolm Blackburn, opened the church to use for these purposes and Clayborn Temple, with its all- black congregation, became the workhorse location during the Memphis movement.
Rev. Blackburn owned a small printing press that he kept in the basement of the church. It was Blackburn who printed the “I AM A MAN” signs that became the icon of the strike, and later, to the American Civil Rights movement. In fact, the slogan has since been used the world over by other demonstrators for civil rights.
One of 10 sites in Tennessee, the once-blighted Clayborn Temple now sits reverently on the newly-launched
U.S. Civil Rights Trail. The Trail will highlight more than 100 sites in 14 states.
This April, visitors to Clayborn Temple will be able to walk through history when the ‘I AM A MAN’ plaza opens to the public (just 10 steps from the church) as part of the MLK50 commemoration. The plaza is a City of Memphis/ Urban Arts Commission project.
“I AM A MAN,” in all of its typographic importance, will stand in 15-foot-tall stainless steel letters. Quotes and speeches from civil rights leaders will be included in components around the sculpture. The space is meant to serve as a “point of reflection, and to invite all people to a peaceful, interactive and educational experience that supports the advancement of equity, justice and positive social change.”
The church itself has suffered serious damage through years of neglect including the vandalization of the original church organ. The church cornerstone was laid in 1841 (opened in 1843). The church organ was custom made for the original congregation, Second Presbyterian Church. That church sold the building to the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in 1949; an A.M.E. congregation occupied it until 1999, but from 1999 until recently, it stood empty.
Finally in 2016, local developers Frank Smith and Rob Thompson, part of Neighborhood Preservation Inc., took on the task of purchasing the property with the goal of creating a mixed- use space for non-profit groups that will complement and continue the movement.
Clayborn Reborn was formed as a fiscal agent, and Smith and Thompson used donated funds and services to “previtalize” the 125-year-old sanctuary through a stabilization and clean-up project. With grant funding from newly formed Clayborn Reborn and the National Trust for Sacred Places, Clayborn will be saved from collapse.
The Downtown Church, the resident congregation, already holds services at Clayborn, and Clayborn Reborn is steadily booking events into the space. In April, Clayborn will be a crucial part in the MLK50 commemoration.
For more information on Clayborn Temple, visit claybornreborn.org.
National Civil Rights Museum MLK50 commemoration are at mlk50.civilrightsmuseum. org/50th-anniversary- commemoration.
Extensive details on the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s strike are found in Michael K. Honey’s book, Going Down Jericho Road.
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail website is civilrightstrail.com/
Bill Lucy (an African American national AFCSME organizer who’d come from Detroit to help the Memphis sanitation workers on strike) told workers on February 13, 1968 after their first and only meeting with (Memphis Mayor) Loeb: “He’s treating you like children, and this day is over because you are men and must stand together as men and demand what you want.”
…Strikers decided to use the phrase on the picket line, and Reverend Malcolm Blackburn, the white minister of Clayborn Temple, printed it up on hundreds of placards. “I AM A Man” meant self- determination, freedom to choose, the right to organize.
—from Going Down Jericho Road, by Michael K. Honey