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    Iconic Memphis photo becomes towering D.C. art exhibit

    Bartholomew Sullivan - The Commercial Appeal -

    WASHINGTON — A block from where Duke Ellington grew up, 17 Memphis sanitation workers, all about 15 feet tall, stare out from the facade of a three-story brick building at the corner of T and 14th Streets in northwest D.C.

    In this iconic photograph, they and the ranks of men behind them are carrying posters reading "I AM A MAN" during the historic 1968 strike that brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. within range of his assassin.

    The enlarged picture stretches the width of an empty building that was a furniture store and will soon be an Italian restaurant

    in a part of the nation's capital where riots broke out upon word of King's death. It was taken by the late photographer of the Civil Rights movement, Ernest Withers of Memphis.

    The photo, one of Withers' most enduring images, was pasted on the building last week by the French artist-provocateur known only as JR, a winner of the $100,000 TED Prize in 2011 who shuns corporate sponsorship and seeks to retain his anonymity by using only his initials. Efforts to reach him through his website and a Washington art gallery were unsuccessful.

    "It's pretty cool," said Neal Becton, 50, owner of Som Records, a shop specializing in vinyl disks a few steps below the sidewalk of a building across the street. As the late blues guitarist Sonny Forriest played in the background, Becton said the area known as the U Street corridor has been transformed in recent years.

    "There have been some big changes," he said. "This used to be a rough part of town."

    JR, who started off as a graffiti artist in Paris before turning to placing photos in public spaces as what he called a "photograffeur," typically hides behind sunglasses, a hat and a beard, but now travels the world making his visual statements.

    He has worked in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, shanty towns in Kenya, the slums of Cambodia and the busy streets of Shanghai with his black and white portraits of everyday people. In 2007, he pasted huge portraits of rabbis, imams and priests — as well as Palestinian and Israeli cabdrivers — on both sides of the walls separating Israel and the Palestinian territories.

    His website (jr-art.net) says he "owns the biggest art gallery in the world" because the planet is his exhibition space. He says his work is about "raising questions."

    Michael K. Honey, a labor history professor at the University of Washington-Tacoma, wrote "Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign." He said JR's inspiration was "a great idea."

    "The images that Mr. Withers made with that sign just speak volumes," Honey said. "You don't even have to know exactly when it happened to know the significance of it … It speaks for itself. That's the power it had during the strike as well."

    Withers, who died at age 85 in 2007, took hundreds of thousands of images chronicling the blues on Beale Street, Negro League baseball and the civil rights movement, including such seminal moments as King riding one of the first integrated buses in Montgomery, Ala., in 1956 and James Meredith's integration of Ole Miss in 1962. He was revealed in 2010 to have doubled as an informant for the FBI.

    Kenneth W. Goings, the former chairman of the African American Studies Department at Ohio State University and a former professor at the University of Memphis, said the JR installation in Washington is "a testament to the greatness of the Memphis sanitation workers movement."

    "(It was) a movement of people who were truly on the bottom but could not be held down," he said in an email message. "And a testament to Ernest Withers who spent much of his career recording for posterity the struggles of those people and others like them. If anyone still questions whether or not history comes from the top down or the bottom up, they only have to see that photo."

    National Civil Rights Museum executive director Beverly Robertson, whose Memphis exhibit space at the Lorraine Motel where King was shot places a major focus on the 1968 strike, said the picture sends a powerful message.

    "They were literally making the statement that said 'there are a lot of things you can do to me … You can refuse to pay me a decent wage, you can dehumanize me … but I am yet a man,'" Robertson said.

    Billy Withers, 65, the photographer's son, said mural-sized images taken by his father are currently on exhibit in Berlin, Germany, as well. "It's always an honor for his work to be respected; it's great," he said. "I'll have to put D.C. back in my travel plans."

    The U Street corridor neighborhood where the Withers photo is displayed is quickly being gentrified. Sushi, Thai, Ethiopian and African American restaurant cuisines mix with yoga studios and hair salons, and new condo construction and row house renovation is everywhere.

    This was the center of the black middle class at the turn of the last century. It's now known for its nightlife.

    Juan Grendez, 45, who makes gyros and pizza until 4 a.m. on weekend nights at Manny and Olga's across the street from the JR installation, said he likes the art work but understands it's temporary. The winter weather is expected to peel away the pasted panels over the next few months.

    "This is weird stuff but it's looking good," he said.