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

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

“How many years can some people exist Before they’re allowed to be free” -- Bob Dylan “This book is about the story of garbage in one city – Memphis, Tennessee – and the lives of the men tasked with collecting it during 1968. These men, all African American, labored brutally hard for such meager wages that many of them qualified for welfare. Six days a week they followed their noses to garbage cans (curbside trash collection had yet to become the norm); then they manhandled the waste to the street using giant washtubs. The city-supplied tubs corroded with time, leaving their bottoms so peppered with holes that garbage slop dripped onto the bodies and clothes of the city’s garbagemen as they labored.

“During the 1960s the sanitation workers of Memphis showed up for work every day knowing they would be treated like garbage. By the end of the day they smelled and felt like garbage, too. Unfairness guided their employment, and racism ruled their workdays. So passed the lives of the garbagemen of Memphis until something snapped, one day in February 1968, and the men collectively declared, ‘Enough is enough.’ Accumulated injustices, compounded by an unexpected tragedy, fueled their determination. Just like that they went out on strike, setting in motion a series of events that would transform their lives, upend the city of Memphis, and lead to the death of the nation’s most notable – and perhaps most hated – advocate for civil rights.” -- from the Foreword by Reverend James Lawson, head of the 1968 Memphis Movement

In February 1968 I was in seventh grade. I read obsessively and I read the newspaper every day. And so I don’t think that it was my own failure. I believe that the mainstream press to which I was exposed did a terrible job of explaining what exactly had been going on in Memphis. We all heard that the Reverend King had been in town there in support of a garbage workers strike when he was assassinated. But without the details, it always seemed so random. Why was the iconic civil rights leader involved in helping a single city’s striking garbagemen? Were there not more earth-shaking missions for him to be involved with that spring?

In MARCHING TO THE MOUNTAINTOP, Ann Bausum tells the story of Martin and Memphis and economic justice that I totally missed out on as a seventh grader. This story includes the gruesome on-the-job deaths of two of those black Memphis sanitation workers; the extent of jobsite racism still rampant in 1968 Memphis; one of the first-ever instances in the U.S. of the spraying of Mace (by police) on civilians (who, were peacefully marching); Dr. King’ s national Poor People Campaign; a white mayor elected by the white Memphis majority who refused to recognize the black sanitation workers’ union or negotiate with the strikers; and the escaped convict who came to Memphis to participate in murdering one of America’s greatest heroes. As is typically the case with these National Geographic history-related books, there is a wealth of photos incorporated into the story that transport us to the time and place of these historic events. There is also a wealth of back matter here that includes an in-depth day-by-day timeline and a detailed look at the civil rights campaigns with which Dr. King was involved.

“The concluding ‘I have a dream’ finale from his 1963 speech in Washington, D.C., has become inseparable from his image. Many forget that these words arose from an event billed as a march for jobs and freedom, not just freedom.” MARCHING TO THE MOUNTAINTOP illustrates so clearly how the objectives of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement – and of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- involved so much more than just the issue of who could sit where on a public bus. 112 pages


Recommended by: Richie Partington, Librarian, California USA

To see more of his recommendations visit: Richie's Picks _http://richiespicks.com_ (

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