Among the many reasons that I love picture books, a major point for me as an adult is that I continually learn about important things through them. As a child with a vivid imagination and creativity, I was never much for history, biographies or period stories growing up. Even now, non-fiction books consistently take me longer to get through, while I devour fiction and stories at an almost alarming rate. But give me bite-size chunks of history, depict it with powerful illustrations, and you’ve got my attention. That’s what today’s book did.
I’m ashamed to say I knew nothing about the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968. I honestly did not even know it had occurred. My childhood education in the civil rights movement is basically non-existent. I don’t remember reading about much of anything except a few paragraphs here and there about Martin Luther King, Jr. My adult education is heavily underway, greatly aided by the powerful school my children attend. And I continue to seek out resources and especially picture books to fill in so many gaps in my knowledge as I learn alongside my children.
The newest one to our stack is Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968 by Alice Faye Duncan, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, 2018. It is a lengthier picture book, a combination of poetry and prose, based on a teacher who participated in the strike and marches in Memphis as a child. Come learn along with me.
It all began in January of 1968, when the death of two black men working in the rain were tragically killed on a malfunctioning garbage truck. Majority of the sanitation workers in Memphis were black men. Poor wages were already a source of complaints for the sanitation workers; but this tragedy lit the fire under the grumblings, turning them into rage. The mayor ignored the lobbying labor union demanding better treatment and safety, and even offered little assistance to the grieving families. Unable to take any more abuse, 1,300 men abandoned their barrels on February 12, 1968.
For 65 days, morning and afternoon, sanitation workers marched 14 blocks through the streets of downtown Memphis. The strike had a massively crippling effect, on the city, and also on the workers as they held firm through unpaid bills, lack of groceries, and worn clothes and shoes. Various groups joined the strike, supporting with boycotts, rallies & songs.
The strike finally brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to town. He spoke of all labor having dignity and organized a march. The first date was shockingly canceled with a record fall of snow. The second date, the march was quickly disrupted by looters rioting on Beale Street. Dr. King had to flee for safety and the mayor issued a state of emergency.
Dr. King returned to Memphis on April 3, 1968 and delivered his last speech, encouraging the “strikers and supporters to march, boycott, and raise their voices for worker rights until victory was won.”
The next morning, Dr. King was shot outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
Despite her grief and the fear that rippled through the movement at his death, Mrs. King traveled to Memphis and kept her husband’s pledge to march on April 8, 1968. Forty-thousand people marched that day, reminding the mayor that the strike would continue its upward climb until justice was issued.
The Tuesday after Easter, April 16, 1968, the Memphis Strike ended. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a top US labor official to negotiate a settlement as the mayor refused to bargain. Even amidst the glad day, tears accompanied:
So much was won.
So much was lost.
Freedom is never free.
This book is so deeply powerful. Such a large moment in history captured in a thin picture book. Duncan tells the story from the perspective of a nine-year old girl named Lorraine whose daddy was one of the striking sanitation workers. Her story is based on the history and the memories of a Memphis teacher who marched alongside her parents as a child. This was a very compelling way to narrate the history. While the book is long, it is captivating. Moving between the facts and the personal memories and feelings of Lorraine’s family, alternating between prose and poetry, the pages are engaging turn after turn. And Christie’s gouache illustrations bring emotion to every page. I am struck by his choices to illustrate; honing in on the family, facial expressions, and occasionally the vastness of the crowds. I am running out of synonyms for powerful.
While this book is not the typical, feel-good bedtime read; it is needed. Oh, so needed, to proclaim history and reverberate the feelings and emotions about that history. I highly recommend this one. Look at it again and again.