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Doubling Down on History
By Ann Bausum
During 15-plus years of researching nonfiction for young readers I’ve learned that every project includes at least one pinch-me-is-this-really-happening moment. Such was the case as I researched the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968 for Marching to the Mountaintop: How Poverty, Labor Fights, and Civil Rights Set the Stage for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Final Hours (National Geographic 2012).
Many adults and almost no young people know that Martin Luther King, Jr., died in Memphis, and fewer still know that a potent blending of civil rights with a labor fight had drawn him to the city. King made three trips to Memphis during that spring of 1968. Each of these visits coincided with the creation of new placards for local protests. One of my pinch-me moments from 2010 was the day I viewed archived examples of these signs (pictured below) during one of my research trips to Memphis.
Plain, powerful, to the point, they read:
Other signs, such as MACE WON’T STOP TRUTH, appear in photographs, but on this one day I was privileged to see four original placards. Readers can absorb the power of these artifacts thanks to book designer Marty Ittner who has incorporated them into the endpapers in her brilliant design for Marching to the Mountaintop.
Dog-eared, battle-worn, marked with the historical imprints of now-unknown hands, these placards symbolize the courage of the people who dared to challenge authority in a city very much unsettled over matters of race. They also document the progression of events in Memphis that spring season.
How police officers (who were almost all white) attacked peaceful protesters (who were almost all African American) with mace: MACE WON’T STOP TRUTH!
How the strikers persisted and their cause grew to be summarized in a four-word declaration of their right to be treated with dignity: I AM A MAN.
How Martin Luther King, Jr., and others understood that labor rights and civil rights are integral components of human rights: UNION JUSTICE NOW!
How King’s commitment to fighting poverty connected to his determination to end racism: HONOR KING: END RACISM!
How the sacrifice of King’s life in Memphis deserved to be remembered: “lest we forget….”
And yet, perhaps because the story of King’s death is so tragic—and so complex—we’ve erred on emphasizing other events from his life, events that are easier to digest, that are stripped of controversy, that can be reduced to convenient annual sound bites.
School children learn that King had a dream, but how many are taught that King died in Memphis while trying to make that dream come true? School children can recognize lines from his “I Have a Dream” speech, but how many have heard the equally powerful words he delivered in his “Mountaintop” speech on what became the last night of his life? School children associate King with an annual holiday, but how many appreciate how his passion for social justice kept him working almost beyond reason? And yet he did, whether the cause was equal rights or voting rights or labor rights, whether the force of repression he fought was segregation or violence or poverty.
When I hold a piece of history in my hands, when I retrace protest marches through downtown Memphis, when I view the balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr., stood at the end of his life, I double down on research, write as if my thoughts are on fire, and revise until my vision blurs, so that readers, young and old alike, can glimpse the gems of history that have shaped our nation.
“Lest we forget.”
May the recollection of these moments from the past inspire us to keep dreaming, keep working, and keep marching to the mountaintop.
This material may not be used without the express written consent of Ann Bausum. Archival photos courtesy The University of Memphis Libraries, Special Collections: Press-Scimitar Archives and Sanitation Strike Collection, Mississippi Valley Collection (MVC).
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