Excerpted from Marching to the Mountaintop by Ann Bausum. Copyright © 2012 by Ann Bausum. Excerpted by permission of National Geographic Children's Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q&A with Ann Bausum, author of Marching to the Mountaintop.
What inspired you to write Marching to the Mountaintop?
Three things come to mind, starting with the photo that appears on pages 54-55 of the book. This image shows a street filled with sanitation workers preparing to march for their rights, each one holding a sign that simply states, “I AM A MAN.” I can’t tell you when I first became aware of that picture, but I can tell you I have been captivated by its power ever since; the photo made me want to write this book. I kept a postcard of it by my desk for years, both before and while I researched and wrote the book. Two other factors inspired me, as well—a trip I made to Memphis in 2004 while researching my book Freedom Riders (during which time I fell in love with the city and its rich, albeit serious, history)—and, of course, my perennial interest in social justice history. Events from Memphis in 1968 are a perfect match for that passion. It’s been an honor and a gift to work with this history.
What’s one lesson that we can learn from the sanitation workers from Memphis?
The sanitation workers remind us of the strength in numbers. They remind us of the power that comes from uniting behind a common cause. They remind us that a group of individuals can not only bind together and bring about change; they can gain increased respect in the process. Midway through the strike, the workers united behind the theme “I AM A MAN.” This declaration of the human right to be treated with dignity enriched the power of the sanitation workers’ strike. Not only did the strikers win the fight for higher wages and better working conditions; they won recognition that their work had merit and that they deserved to be treated with respect.
What was the most meaningful thing you found in your research?
I found myself profoundly moved as I learned more about the final months and days of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. As a historian I view historical events from the perspective of hindsight, and I consider them through the lens of how they unfolded at the time. When I study the history of 1968 as current events, the actions that transpired there take on a richer meaning. No one knew if the sanitation workers’ strike would succeed. No one knew when King gave his “Mountaintop” speech on April 3 that it would be the last speech of his life. No one knew that he would be killed the next day. I tried to capture that innocence in my recounting of the events. For me the events become that much more tragic as a result, and they become that much more important to remember.
This is a heavy story – why make it a children’s book?
Life is heavy. Life has challenges, even if you’re a child—maybe especially if you’re a child. Adults gain inspiration by reading about others who have faced adversity, and children can be inspired, too. We do our young people a disservice if we only tell half the story about the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Let’s not just emphasize how King had a dream in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; let’s share how he fought to make that dream a reality to the end of his life. Let’s consider how that commitment and love and tragedy can inspire new generations to fight for their rights and, as clichéd as it sounds, to make the world a better place to live.
How can we relate this book to events happening around us today?
The themes that inspired the civil rights movement—equality, justice, fairness, respect, dignity—are perennial themes. The world can always use more of them. Likewise, the groups that have driven social justice change throughout history—social activists, labor union members, community organizers, individual volunteers—continue to mobilize to effect change. For example, in 2011 labor unions found new relevance, as was shown that winter in my home state of Wisconsin. In fact, I was writing my book about the fight in 1968 for the right of public employees to form unions and engage in collective bargaining (speaking with one voice at the negotiating table) at the same time that public employees in Wisconsin and elsewhere were fighting against efforts to strip unions of key collective bargaining rights. Reading this book now adds an historical richness to our understanding of similar current events. Furthermore if we had had better awareness of the costs that went into gaining those rights—including the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.—we might have viewed them as beyond repeal in 2011. It’s really true: If we teach the deeper stories of history, warts and all, we’re less likely to repeat mistakes when we make our own history.