Marching to the Mountaintop: How Poverty, Labor Fights and Civil Rights Set the Stage for Martin Luther King Jr's Final Hours by Ann Bausum
It was the winter of 1968 when Memphis Tennessee's sanitation workers had finally had enough. The all African-American staff that collected the garbage worked six days a week and was paid not for the time worked, but by the route. If bad weather or traffic caused setbacks, it was their loss. As if collecting garbage - before the invention of garbage bags and wheeled plastic cans and for a city that provided no locker room to shower and change in before going home - wasn't hard enough work, the conditions were unsanitary and unsafe. On a rainy day in February, two workers were crushed by their truck's compacting mechanism. The workers decided that something needed to be done. Against city policy, they formed a union and with the support of local ministers - and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - they staged a walkout and began to strike. The strike would drag on for months and it would test all connected with it, bringing about bright, shining moments, and regrettable and irreversible tragedy.
So much of what we read about Martin Luther King Jr. is connected to his earlier civil rights efforts (the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the 1963 March on Washington, the Selma to Montgomery Marches). It is not often that books for children delve specifically into what was to be his final campaign in Memphis. Marching to the Mountaintop provides a gripping account of the sanitation workers strike and Martin Luther King Jr.'s role in inspiring the people of Memphis to continue the practice of nonviolent direct action. I'm ashamed to say that while I knew King was assassinated in Memphis at the Lorraine Hotel and that, exhausted and greatly in need of a respite from his tireless work, the night prior he gave what was to be his last and one of his most inspiring speeches, where he proclaimed that he had "seen the promised land," confessed "I may not get there with you" and proclaimed "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord," I had no idea why King was even in town. I didn't realize the horrendous conditions under which the sanitation workers struggled, day in and day out, or the racism and brute force response from police and municipal bodies, that still pervaded despite the passage of multiple civil rights acts. This was an eye opener for me, as I imagine it would be for most readers - especially younger readers.
The design of the book is impeccable. A Foreword by civil rights leader Rev. James Lawson, who was intimately involved in the strike, followed by an introduction by the author and helpful "Cast of Characters" set the stage for the brewing uprising. The use of bold choices in font and colors, along the with the inclusion of photographs and quotes draw the reader in visually. Throughout the book, Bausum brings the reader into the action, quoting extensively from her in-depth research, assisted by the vast archival record created by the Memphis Search for Meaning Committee, various biographies on King and other works that chronicle the Civil Rights Movement. Most helpful for students doing research on King and the Civil Rights Movement is the "King's Campaigns" section, included after the text, which provides a profile of each campaign, noting the setting, objective, origin, players, targets, events on the ground, and outcome. Research Notes and Acknowledgements from Bausum provide a glimpse into her research process and indebtedness to those who helped her along the way. A Resource Guide, Bibliography Illustration Credits, Citations and Index complete the package.
I've already had one student - an 8th grader - use this book as one of the sources for his term paper on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The appealing and accessible design of this title have me confident that he will not be the last. A MUST have for any middle school collection.
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