“I am a man”
Step out from behind your counter and walk to the door to take in the brisk afternoon air of this gloomy Spring day. You always look down Beale toward the river, where the sky is lighter. It’s been a slow morning, been a slow day, been a slow month, the city on edge since the sanitation workers walked off the job that rainy week in February.
You don’t want to look uptown. You don’t want to look at all. You’ve seen them all morning, shambling down the streets in dribs and drabs, dressed up in their suits and good sweaters, dirty hats on their heads. They’ve got something wrong with them, the way that they are walking, like they are trying to squeeze through a thicket without mussing themselves. Folks have come in to talk about it, say that there’s a big crowd gathering, but you know that and don’t want to know that.
At last you turn, take one look before you go in. There’s a trim, well-dressed negro standing in the middle of the empty street, a camera held up to his face, pointing down the center line to the gnarled and tangled crowd that has taken root on the pavement outside of the Clayborn Temple.
There’s no telling any one of them apart, or telling what the crowd is really, they are as intertwined and indistinguishable as swamp clots. Each one holds a white placard with big black letters printed on it.
“I Am A Man.”
Can they be men? They can be a different kind. They do work no other man would do and are good at it, the bone-breaking, monotuous work of digging ditches or pulling cotton or lugging garbage. They have their ways, their place, and make good of it.
Isn’t that what a man does, take his due and make what he can out of it? A man doesn’t reach out to grab what isn’t his, to get something that he hasn’t earned. A man doesn’t look to impoverish another for his own enrichment. A man follows the path that he’s got and stays in it.
The negro photographer claps his hands and all eyes turn up the avenue. You are confronted with hundreds of eyes, white-yellow and sweat-rimmed. The placards look like the bristling white teeth of a giant maw about to clamp down.
You go back in the store, tired.
You wouldn’t be surprised to hear what is next: thousands of men will tromp past your store on their way to town. A rowdy will smash in your window. A cop will fire a shot, others will wield their clubs. You’ll run to the stockroom and bar the door, listening the resounding cracks of wood splintering and concrete bruising. They’ll pound on the stockroom door like rocks rolling along in the flood waters.
You’ll be taken out of the city center that night by a young Guardsman. Your wife will be waiting in the kitchen listening to the radio for news when you get dropped off at the curb. Your sons will be playing on the big oak tree. Old Ella will meet you at the door to take your coat. Her dark eyes will be red and strained.
“Did you see my Jethro, Mister?” she ask. “My little boy went in to that march. Did you see him?”