Cover image for 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
1st ed.
Publication Information:
Washington, D.C. : National Geographic, 2012.
Physical Description:
104 p. : ill. (some col.) ; 28 cm.
Foreword -- Introduction -- Death in Memphis -- Strike! -- Impasse -- A war on poverty -- Marching in Memphis -- Last days -- Death in Memphis, reprise -- Overcome -- Afterword -- King's campaigns -- Cast of characters -- Timeline -- Research notes and acknowledgments -- Resource guide.
Reading Level:
1200 L Lexile
Explores how the media, politics, the civil rights movement, and labor protests all converged to set the scene for one of Dr. King's greatest speeches and for his tragic death on April 4, 1968, in Memphis.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book J 323.092 BAU 1 1
Book J 323.092 BAU 1 1
Book J 323.092 BAU 1 1

On Order



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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Author Notes

Ann Bausum is an award-winning children's book author on the lookout for personal stories that connect readers with our nation's past and the echo of history in current events. Marching to the Mountaintop is Ann's ninth book for the National Geographic Society. With painstaking research, an eye for just the right illustration, and a compelling narrative, awardwinning author Ann Bausum makes history come alive for young people. Previous books for National Geographic include Denied, Detained, Deported: Stories From the Dark Side of American Immigration ; Muckrakers: How Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Upton Sinclair Exposed Corruption, Inspired Reform, and Helped Found Investigative Journalism ; Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement, which was a Sibert Honor Book, and With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman's Right to Vote , winner of the Jane Addams Award. Ann lives in Beloit, Wisconsin. To find out more about her writing, visit her on the Web at

Reviews 4

Horn Book Review

This book is about the story of garbage in...Memphis, Tennessee--and the lives of the men tasked with collecting it." Bausum's well-researched history traces events in 1968 Memphis, beginning with a sanitation workers' strike and culminating with Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Though the busy design is distracting, the plentiful, well-captioned (unnecessarily tinted) photos extend the compelling narrative. Reading list, timeline, websites. Bib., ind. (c) Copyright 2012. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Booklist Review

Bausum offers an inspiring glimpse of the civil rights movement and the power of nonviolent resistance through an examination of the Memphis sanitation workers' strike in 1968. It all started in February, when two public workers were crushed to death by a faulty garbage truck. Festering tensions over unfair pay, the impossibility of promotion, and job safety boiled over, and African American workers went on strike. As the spring wore on and mountains of garbage grew in city streets, silent protests and picket lines were organized. Students familiar with the civil rights movement will know that this historical episode had a tragic ending, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The book's sharp design features a pictorial cast of characters to aid visually minded readers, and the photographs of hundreds of workers in the streets, armed with signs reading I am a man, leave a moving impression. A lyrical foreword by King's friend and associate, the Reverend James Lawson, is included, and the amply stocked back matter includes a detailed time line, accounts of eight of King's notable campaigns, and thorough source citations.--Anderson, Erin Copyright 2010 Booklist

School Library Journal Review

Gr 6 Up-In her book (National Geographic, 2012), Bausum explores the connections between the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike and Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. This detailed account of the strike in Tennessee, the conditions of poverty in which African Americans lived, and the Civil Rights Movement provide listeners with a better understanding of this part of American history. The book begins with a horrific accident that befalls two sanitation workers that prompts a strike by the mostly African American sanitation staff. The struggle and heartbreak encountered by these workers is recounted. Bausum includes so many personal narratives that it gives the book a personal touch. Unfamiliar terms and concepts are defined. Corey Allen's deep voice and steady pace provides a serious tone. This audiobook would be a great resource for students studying the Civil Rights Movement.-Katie Llera, Sayreville Middle School, NJ (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Review

(Nonfiction. 10-14)]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.



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. Excerpted from 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 All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.