White supremacy was, like all iniquity from the Garden insurrection on, cruelly cunning. Those with power were able to keep certain questions from being asked by keeping poor and working-class white people sure that they were superior to someone: to the descendants of the slaves around them. The idea of the special dignity of the white “race” gave something of a feeling of aristocracy to those who were otherwise far from privilege, while fueling the fallen human passions of wrath, jealousy, and pride.
In so doing, Jim Crow repeated the old strategies of the reptilian powers of the air: to convince human beings simultaneously and paradoxically that they are gods and animals. In the Garden, after all, the snake approached God’s image-bearer, directing her as though he had dominion over her (when it was, in fact, the other way around). He treated her as an animal, and she didn’t even see it. At the same time, the old dragon appealed to her to transcend the limits of her dignity. If she would reach for the forbidden, she would be “like God, knowing good and evil.” He suggested that she was more than a human; she was a goddess.
That’s why the words “I Am a Man” were more than a political slogan. They were a theological manifesto. Those bravely wearing those signs were declaring that they’d decided not to believe the rhetoric used against them. They refused to believe the propaganda that they were a “lesser race,” or even just a different race. They refused to believe the propaganda (sometimes propped up by twisted Bible verses) that they and their ancestors were bestial, animal-like, unworthy of personhood.
The words affirmed the thing that frightened the racist establishment more than anything. Those behind the signs were indeed persons. They bore a dignity that could not be extinguished by custom or legislation. I am a man.
The words also implied a fiery rebuke. The white supremacists believed they could deny human dignity to those they deemed lesser. They had no right to do so. They believed themselves to be gods and not creatures, able to decree whatever they willed with no thought to natural rights, or to nature’s God. The signs pointed out what that those who made unjust laws, and who unleashed the water-hoses and pit-bull dogs, were only human, and, as such, would face judgment.