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Marching to the Mountaintop

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How Poverty, Labor Fights and Civil Rights Set the Stage for Martin Luther King Jr's Final Hours

Written by Ann BausumAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Ann Bausum


List Price: $19.95


On Sale: January 10, 2012
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-4263-0945-8
Published by : National Geographic Children's Books National Geographic Society
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In early 1968 the grisly on-the-job deaths of two African-American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, prompted an extended strike by that city's segregated force of trash collectors. Workers sought union protection, higher wages, improved safety, and the integration of their work force. Their work stoppage became a part of the larger civil rights movement and drew an impressive array of national movement leaders to Memphis, including, on more than one occasion, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King added his voice to the struggle in what became the final speech of his life. His assassination in Memphis on April 4 not only sparked protests and violence throughout America; it helped force the acceptance of worker demands in Memphis. The sanitation strike ended eight days after King's death.

The connection between the Memphis sanitation strike and King's death has not received the emphasis it deserves, especially for younger readers. Marching to the Mountaintop explores how the media, politics, the Civil Rights Movement, and labor protests all converged to set the scene for one of King's greatest speeches and for his tragic death.

National Geographic supports K-12 educators with ELA Common Core Resources.
Visit www.natgeoed.org/commoncore for more information.


It was horrible,” said the woman.
One minute she could see a sanitation worker struggling to climb out of the refuse barrel of a city garbage truck. The next minute mechanical forces pulled him back into the cavernous opening. It looked to her as though the man’s raincoat had snagged on the vehicle, foiling his escape attempt. “His body went in first and his legs were hanging out,” said the eyewitness, who had been sitting at her kitchen table in Memphis, Tennessee, when the truck paused in front of her home. Next, she watched the man’s legs vanish as the motion of the truck’s compacting unit swept the worker toward his death. “The big thing just swallowed him,” she reported.
Unbeknownst to Mrs. C. E. Hinson, another man was already trapped inside the vibrating truck body. Before vehicle driver Willie Crain could react, Echol Cole, age 36, and Robert Walker, age 30, would be crushed to death. Nobody ever identified which one came close to escaping.
Cole and Walker wore raincoats for good reason on February 1, 1968. At the end of a wet workday, Willie Crain’s four-man crew had divvied up the truck’s available shelter for the trip to the garbage dump. Elester Gregory and Eddie Ross, Jr., squeezed into the driver’s cab with Crain and left the younger members of the crew with two choices. They could hold on tight to exterior perches while the truck passed through torrential rains. Or they could climb inside the truck’s garbage barrel, wedged between the front wall of the vessel and the packing arm that pressed a load of refuse against the rear of the truck. Walker and Cole opted for the dryer and seemingly more secure interior space.
Rain or shine, the 1,100 sanitation workers of Memphis collected what amounted to 2,500 tons of garbage a day. This all-male, exclusively African- American staff worked six days a week with one 15-minute break for lunch and no routine access to bathroom facilities. Their pay was based on their garbage routes, not their hours worked, so there was no overtime compensation when the days ran long. Workers supplied their own clothing and gloves, toted rain- saturated garbage in leaky tubs supplied by the city, and had no place to shower or to change out of soiled clothes before returning home. Even though the men worked full-time, their earnings failed to lift their families from poverty. To make ends meet, many found extra jobs, paid for groceries with government- sponsored food stamps, lived in low-income housing projects, and made use of items scavenged during their garbage runs.
The men toiled under a system with eerie echoes of the pre–Civil War South, what some called the plantation mentality. Whites worked as supervisors. Blacks, who made up almost 40 percent of the city’s population, performed the backbreaking labor. Bosses expected to be addressed as “sir.” Workers endured being called “boy,” regardless of their ages. Whites presumed to know what was best for “our Negroes,” and blacks tolerated poor treatment for fear of losing their jobs, or worse. City officials had no motivation to recognize the fledgling labor union that sought to protect the workers and to advocate for their rights. As a result, employees “acted like they were working on a plantation, doing what the master said,” recalled sanitation worker Clinton Burrows.
Garbage collectors faced back injuries and other strains because of the physical demands of the work, and they fretted about the use of unsafe equipment. Willie Crain’s truck had been purchased on the cheap in 1957 at a time when Henry Loeb ran the department of public works. By 1968, when Loeb returned to public office as the newly elected Memphis mayor, the city had begun replacing the old trucks. Two of the vehicles, including Crain’s truck, had been retrofitted with a makeshift motor after the unit’s trash-compacting engine had worn out. As best as anyone could figure after the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, a loose shovel had fallen into the wiring for the replacement motor and had accidentally triggered the reversal of the trash compactor.
Like those of other sanitation workers, the families of Cole and Walker managed paycheck to paycheck, leaving no reserves for emergencies. Their jobs came without the benefits of life insurance or a guarantee of support in the case of work-related injury or death. Mayor Loeb honored the victims by lowering public flags to half-mast, but he offered scant assistance to their survivors. The city contributed $500 toward the men’s $900 funerals and paid out an extra month’s wages to Cole’s widow and the widow of Walker (who was pregnant).
The deaths of Cole and Walker wrapped up a particularly bad week for African Americans employed at the department of public works. This unit handled garbage collection, street repairs, and other city maintenance. On January 30, two days before the sanitation-worker fatalities, 21 members of the sewer and drainage division had been sent home with only two hours of “show-up pay” because of bad weather. The previous public works director had kept staff employed regardless of the weather, but Mayor Loeb had ordered Charles Blackburn, his new director, to return to Loeb’s old rainy-day policy from the 1950s. In a climate where rain fell frequently, workers lost their ability to predict their income. “That’s when we commenced starving,” explained road worker Ed Gillis.
Author Q&A

Author Q&A

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.



Named Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People 2013 by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the Children’s Book Council!

Named Noteworthy Title for Children and Teens by Capitol Choices!

Named a Choice Book of 2013 by the Cooperative Children's Book Center!  

"This compelling informational text features well-chosen photographs coupled with intersecting summaries of King's various crusades for social justice and civil rights." - Pennsylvania Reads 

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