Wednesday, January 23, 2008


2008 cry: 'I want to be a man'

I am a MAN.

Humbling and awesome, it was the slogan of the Memphis black sanitation workers fighting in 1968 for better working conditions and pay and the benefits enjoyed by their white counter- parts.

The simple, red-lettered signs include a detail often overlooked: The "AM" was underlined -- a present tense manhood. They were due respect and dignity. Now.

Fast forward nearly four decades to Monday, the federal holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., killed in Memphis after he'd come to the aid of the striking men.

On Monday, "I AM A MAN" will get an update that speaks to the struggle's shift: from undoing what white institutions did to black people to undoing what black people, particularly black men, often do to each other.

"I want to be a man."

It's the mantra of Memphis Cares, a budding mentorship movement in Memphis, and reflects a desire for a future state of being. The addition of just three words to the iconic slogan of garbage men declares that manhood doesn't result simply from sufficient passage of time.

"To be a man means to be responsible," says Kareem Ali, 30, who in August led the local effort of the Million Father March, which encouraged dads to take their children to the first day of school. "His job as a man is to maintain his family, to provide them, to be a leader and a guide for his community."

But it's a message not heard by many black boys who, absent a father or father-figure, are susceptible to the lure of drugs, crime and self-destructive living.

Ali, the father of an 11-month-old son and a member of the Memphis Cares steering committee, remembers a talk he had at a local middle school with a roomful of about 100 black boys. He asked how many of them lived with their father -- and only three did.

"For those who have a passion for these children, it compels the mind and spirit to want to get up and do something and be a servant to these boys.

"That's why I love the phrase -- I want to be a man, I need a mentor -- that's a cry for children."

Ali has enlisted dozens of children and adults to participate in the annual march Downtown on Monday that honors King. When the march ends at the National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis Cares will make its formal debut at 9:30 a.m.

Memphis Cares is the local outgrowth of a national mentoring crusade led by Susan L. Taylor, formerly of Essence magazine, who will be at the museum Monday.

In the next year, organizers will recruit 3,000 black women and 3,000 black men to mentor black children. (That said, white people who want to mentor will not be turned away.)

Ali, who speaks with the zeal of a preacher, finds hope in the prophecy in the last speech King delivered, at Mason Temple on April 3, 1968. "I've seen the promised land," King said the night before he was assassinated. "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"

Biblical scholars will note that the Israelites' entry into the promised land was delayed in part because of the people's fear of the giants in the land.

Forty years after King was killed, Ali asserts that black America is "worse off because we have not gotten together as a community to solve our own problems and our own issues.

"Our giants today are drugs, black-on-black crime, AIDS ... black male incarceration," Ali says. "Those are the giants that we've got to fight today. And if we don't destroy those giants now, within the next 10 years, (there) may not be a promised land for us."

Contact: Wendi C. Thomas at 529-5896 or e-mail