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How iconic typographic picket signs became our eternal cry for justice


n this week’s cover of the first edition of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo –ever since its staff were murderously attacked by Islamist gunmen– appears a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed crying and holding up a “Je suis Charlie” sign under the words: “All is forgiven”. A follow up to the worldwide sympathy and “Je Suis Charlie” solidarity picket signs that rose up in the wake of the attack against it last Wednesday, in which 12 people were killed including five of France’s top cartoonists. But this iconic slogan that has gone viral and was adopted by supporters of free speech and freedom of expression after the 7 January 2015 massacre, would never have happened if a certain slogan hadn’t bled into new calls for change, almost half a century ago.

Images via: Butdoesitfloat

It was on February 12, 1968, when Memphis sanitation workers, the majority of them African American, went out on strike demanding recognition for their union, better wages, and safer working conditions after two trash handlers were killed by a malfunctioning garbage truck. The strike gained national attention as it dragged on through March, with the Memphis mayor refusing to negotiate. As they marched, striking workers carried copies of a poster declaring “I AM A MAN,” a statement that recalled a question abolitionists posed more than 100 years earlier, “Am I not a man and a brother?”

Dissidents in countries from China to Africa have all acknowledged the inspiration and courage they drew from the emblematic “I Am A Man” slogan

Their picket signs spoke to the basic rights they felt were violated. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis to support the workers and joined the cause. Speaking to a crowd of 6,000 in late March and returning on April 3 to deliver one of his most famous speeches, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” the black American leader placed the strike in a larger context, declaring, “The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee—the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.’” He died there on April 4, struck by a sniper’s bullet as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Images via: Butdoesitfloat

Since then, iconic slogans became a visual call to protest for civil rights and America’s civil rights movement has been a template for campaigns across the world. Dissidents in countries from China to Africa have all acknowledged the inspiration and courage they drew from America’s activists and visual imagery of an ever emblematic and long-lasting “I Am A Man” slogan. Five years ago, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman summed up the Arab uprising in a sign held aloft by a Libyan demonstrator. The sign read in Arabic: “Ana Rajul.” Translation? “I am a man.”

“Ana Rajul” in Arabic with PF Nuyork Arabic

Nobody knows for sure how the sign idea originated. According to Jesse Epps, a union organizer sent to Memphis by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees in 1968, “it was a collaboration of union officials and civil rights activists”. About 400 posters were printed in a church print shop. Epps said the words stemmed from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

     Image via: Butdoesitfloat

Today the posters are rare collector’s items. In 2010, an original “I AM A MAN” protest poster sold for $34,000 at a New York auction, one of the highest prices for civil rights memorabilia. From Memphis through “Ana Rajul” to New York where the “I Can’t Breathe” printed slogan demanded justice after Eric Garner died when a police officer placed him in a chokehold to “Je Suis Charlie” picket signs are a visual element of history as it happens. Be fair out there and make sure you use the right font for the right, humane, cause. 

Image: Jason Decrow/Associated Press

From Memphis through “Ana Rajul” to “Je Suis Charlie” picket signs are a visual element of history as it happens

                         Image via: Butdoesitfloat