Memphis sanitation ‘I Am a Man’ workers receive Vanguard award to at 49th NAACP Image Awards

National Civil Rights Museum

The surviving 1968 sanitation workers – some of them are still on the job – were presented with the prestigious NAACP Vanguard Award in conjunction with the 49th NAACP Image Awards at the historic Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.

This honor is presented in recognition of the groundbreaking work that has increased understanding and awareness of racial and social issues. Previous honorees include Clive Davis, Wyclef Jean, Tyler Perry, Russell Simmons, Aretha Franklin, Stanley Kramer, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas.

“It is a rare privilege for the NAACP to present our Vanguard Award to outstanding trailblazing individuals who gave voice and projected attention to the struggle for racial and economic justice,” stated Leon W. Russell, Chairman of the NAACP National Board of Directors. “50 years after the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, the NAACP continues the fight to ensure living wages, health care benefits, and job safety. I am personally inspired by their individual and collective activism. The NAACP is proud to honor all surviving sanitation workers.”

On April 3, 1968, Dr. King stood in the pulpit of Mason Temple in Memphis and delivered the prophetic “Mountaintop Speech.” He addressed a sanctuary overflowing with community members and African American sanitation workers – members of AFSCME Local 1733 – whose strike for dignity and respect grew into a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Less than 24 hours later, he was tragically assassinated. April 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of The Mountaintop Speech, Dr. King’s death, and the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.

“Despite threats to their lives and livelihoods, the sanitation workers made the brave decision to strike, armed with the simple, powerful slogan, ‘I Am a Man’,” said Derrick Johnson, NAACP president and CEO. “They knew the urgency of their demand for dignity and justice, but little did they know how relevant their peaceful protest would remain come 2018. It is now up to us to confront modern-day challenges to civil rights with the same courage and determination. The NAACP is honored to present the Vanguard Award to the surviving sanitation workers for their fight for racial and economic justice. We are inspired by their individual and collective activism.

On April 4, 2018, all eyes will turn to Memphis, Tennessee and the National Civil Rights Museum to remember the tragic event that occurred 50 years prior. Our nation’s greatest peacemaker was snatched from us by a sniper’s bullet. That shot would reverberate throughout the world, and on April 4, 2018, the world remembers the event that occurred at approximately 6:01 p.m. CT. The National Civil Rights Museum wants to help the world reflect, not linger on the past, and use
that horrific event to propel us forward. MLK50: Where Do We Go From Here? is the theme for the year-long commemoration of Dr. King’s assassination. This was the title of Dr. King’s final book as well as the title of the speech he delivered August 16, 1967 at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“In 2018, our desire is not simply to reflect and recount the history, but to connect the history to contemporary issues. The theme is most appropriate for this commemoration, to focus on making a positive impact on the future. The sub-themes for the events will be poverty/economic equity, education, justice and nonviolence,” said National Civil Rights Museum President Terri Freeman. “Over the course of 50 weeks, we’ll send individuals that take the MLK50 Pledge – A Call to Peace and Action – 50 achievable actions that realize Dr. King’s legacy of peace.” For more information, visit

The two-hour live television special was the culmination of a day of volunteer service, citizen action, and celebration on the national holiday honoring the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.