Rain flooded the streets of Memphis on Feb. 1, 1968, a deluge that would alter history. Forced to work in the downpour that day, two sanitation workers, black men named Echol Cole and Robert Walker, sought shelter in the back of a garbage truck and were crushed when an electrical switch malfunctioned. That same day, nearly two dozen black sewer workers were sent home without pay while their white supervisors stayed on the clock.
Memphis’ sanitation workers would go on strike later that month, decrying the racism, low wages and horrible working conditions they had endured. The eight-week protest eventually led to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end,” King told Memphis’ sanitation workers in April 1968. “Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”
Half a century later, Mike Conley wants to remind the world of that ongoing struggle. The Utah Jazz point guard, who spent more than a decade of his career in Memphis, will wear the striking workers’ rallying cry — “I am a Man” — on the back of his jersey as the NBA season resumes this week.
“It was something I consulted my family on,” Conley said. “It’s something we thought was powerful, especially because that came from Memphis. … It means a lot to put that on the back of my jersey and be able to represent everyone behind me.”
The vast majority of NBA players, including each member of the Utah Jazz, have opted to replace their last name on the back of their jersey with a message of social justice.
Jordan Clarkson — PEACE
Nigel Williams-Goss — JUSTICE NOW
Joe Ingles — ALLY
Justin Wright-Foreman — JUSTICE
Jarrell Brantley — ENOUGH
Rayjon Tucker — JUSTICE
Mike Conley — I AM A MAN
Tony Bradley — PEACE
Emmanuel Mudiay — PEACE
Juwan Morgan — SAY THEIR NAMES
Ed Davis — EDUCATION REFORM
Royce O’Neale — EQUALITY
Rudy Gobert — EQUALITY
Georges Niang — EDUCATION REFORM
Donovan Mitchell — SAY HER NAME
Miye Oni — POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Each player has his own story and reason for the message he has chosen, but their goal is a unified one.
“I think [basketball] is a distraction from what’s going on in the world,” All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell said earlier this month. “But when the job calls, you have to go to work. Now it’s on us to go out there and push this message as much as we can.”
Mitchell will wear “Say Her Name” on the back of his jersey in honor of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old black woman who was shot and killed in her own home by Louisville, Kentucky, police in March.
“It should be about Breonna Taylor,” said Mitchell, who played college basketball at Louisville. “Her killers still haven’t been arrested.”
Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson will wear “Peace” on his jersey.
“Everybody is fighting for a peace of a mind, especially with the Black Lives Matter” movement, Clarkson said. “This fight—that black lives matter—at the end of the day is going to cause peace for us all, being able to feel that equality in all areas and aspects of our lives.”
The Jazz’s All-Star center Rudy Gobert, meanwhile, has chosen “Equality” as his message.
“I think equality is a powerful word,” Gobert said. “I want my kids to live in a world where everyone is treated as equal, regardless of the color of their skin, their religion. I think it’s something we have to strive to attain in society.
“Obviously, it’s better than it was 100 years ago but it can be a lot better. We’d be lying to ourselves if we said there was equality today. We have signs every day that that’s not the case. We have to keep pushing in that direction to make sure that one day it is the case.”