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

by Ann Bausum

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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…  See more details below


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.

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From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

School Library Journal
Gr 6 Up—It is common knowledge that Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, on April 4, 1968. What is less generally discussed is the reason he was there—his involvement with the sanitation workers' strike. This beautifully illustrated, clearly laid out recounting of King's involvement with the strike presents the precipitating causes as well as the course of the action. Eight chapters cover the deaths of two sanitation workers, which triggered protests that morphed into the strike; the impasse between the city and the workers; the impact of larger movements, such as Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement; the series of protest marches; King's last days and assassination; and the resolution of the strike and the denouement of the Civil Rights Movement. A pictorial guide to the people who figured in the action precedes the subsequent chapters, which use spiritual verses as epigrams and feature perfectly placed photographs that extend the lucid text. While the vocabulary is relatively advanced, the combination of pictorial presentation with informative text should draw in adolescent readers. Research notes, a resource guide (listing books, music, documentary films, places to visit, and websites), an extensive bibliography, a citation list, and an index conclude this fine and informative look at the crossover between labor actions and civil rights. With a narrower focus than Milton Meltzer's There Comes a Time: The Struggle for Civil Rights (Random, 2001), this is an excellent source for curricular extension in American history courses.—Ann Welton, Helen B. Stafford Elementary, Tacoma, WA
From the Publisher
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 

Children's Literature - Barbara Troisi
It is March 1969—the days of "real" cooking and "naked" (no plastic liners) garbage. This story sets the tone for 65 days of strikes by African American men who normally toiled six days a week to collect the trash while receiving meager salaries and experiencing dangerous conditions in Memphis, Tennessee, and the ultimate death of their advocate, Martin Luther King. Author Ann Bausum's book design captures the turbulent drama with a variety of motifs. Placards and protest signs displayed by the marchers appear in the endpapers. Black-and-white archival photos tinted with blue, orange, and green washes evoke somber and dark scenes. Large orange quotations surround enlarged texts offering timely historic conversation. Throughout the book, African American spirituals, anthems, freedom songs, letters, and quotes emphasize the plight of the laborers. Eight chapters of compelling narration offer readers an eloquent account of the collaborative campaign to gain labor and civil rights and sets the stage for Martin Luther King, Jr.' final hours and death. The afterword reflects on the strength of the labor unions multiplying in Memphis. President of AFSCME Local 1733, T. O. Jones stated that the labor crisis could have been avoided for the sum of about $44, the cost of lost wages from the rainy day of January 30. Opportunities for student research include a multitude of resources. Tracing the events is a cast of characters (Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Authorities, Memphis Movement, Labor, Management and Mediators) who played significant roles in the strife. Using the listed names, students can bring to life the characters in dramatic performances. The timeline offers abbreviated details in line with the text, adding meaning. Eight notable campaigns of Martin Luther King, Jr. are profiled. Other valuable properties complement the text and add valuable information including the forward, table of contents, resource guide, bibliography, illustrations credits, citations, index, and author information. Students will appreciate this factual, detailed easy-to-read story about American history and the heroes of social justice. Reviewer: Barbara Troisi
Kirkus Reviews
The intersection of the 1968 Memphis garbage strike, the Poor People's Campaign and the last days of Martin Luther King Jr. is brought to vivid life in a fine work of history writing. Who knew that the story of garbage in Memphis, Tenn., could be so interesting, and so important? By 1968, Martin Luther King Jr.'s work had expanded beyond the social reforms of integration and voting rights to speaking out for economic justice and against the war in Vietnam. King, along with with a young activist named Marian Wright and others, was planning the Poor People's Campaign, a march on Washington of the nation's poor. The garbage workers in Memphis "represented exactly the sort of poor people his effort sought to help," so off he went. This is history from the ground up, and Bausum makes good use of oral histories, newspapers, pamphlets, letters and photographs to tell her tale. Unfortunately, the fine historical narrative is undercut by the distracting design of the volume, cluttered with huge orange quotation marks throughout and photographs tinted blue, green and orange. The well-chosen photographs left untouched and the excellent writing would have sufficed for a topnotch nonfiction work. Readers will be eyewitnesses to history in this story of one fateful chapter in the Civil Rights Movement, if they can get past the design. (research notes, resource guide, bibliography, citations) (Nonfiction. 10-14)

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Read an Excerpt

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.

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

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