Unsettled Debts: 1968 and the Problem of Historical Memory| Lost in Citation: Afterlives of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike

Clare O'Connor


Activists often use historical citations to help stimulate action in the present. In 2018, factions of the U.S. labor movement commemorated the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike by citing its famous slogan: “I AM A MAN.” Through this case, I show how such citations allow us to evaluate the character and potential of present actions. Specifically, because the process of citation invites us to consider the past with which contemporary actions become constellated, I argue that this process also alerts us both to the animating promise of the past and to the limitations of our current conceptions of the political. Approaching my case study in this way reveals that while the 2018 campaigns foregrounded the need for political recognition, the 1968 campaign to which they superficially referred pointed toward something like sovereignty. Following Walter Benjamin, I argue that, through analysis, this difference and its political implications can be brought into view through the citation itself.


citation, commemorative media, labor movement, performatives, politics of recognition, racism, sovereignty

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