Each year I visit frequently with middle school and high school students to talk about my work as a nonfiction author, and I don’t think a session has ever passed without someone asking: “What’s the favorite book you’ve written?”
Although I’ve explained numerous times that being asked to pick my favorite book is like being asked to pick my favorite child—in other words impossible—my newest publication may make me a liar. From start to finish I’ve felt absolutely captivated by the research, writing, and production of Marching to the Mountaintop: How Poverty, Labor Fights, and Civil Rights Set the Stage for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Final Hours. (National Geographic Children’s Books will release the title on January 10.)
The biggest reason I may start calling this my favorite book is the history itself. I literally found myself exclaiming out loud as I worked with facts that leant themselves so well to the dramatic potential of narrative nonfiction. The historical characters, the setting, the chronology, the thickening “plot” would be the envy of any novelist. “Do the history proud,” became my goal.
I wanted to give readers the context for the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Plenty of children (and even adults) don’t know that he died in Memphis. Few people of any age can tell you that he had gone there to advocate for the labor rights of the city’s sanitation workers.
Death not only concludes this history; it starts it, too. On February 1, 1968, two sanitation workers were crushed to death while riding inside the barrel of a garbage truck. Within days more than a thousand sanitation and street repair workers decided to strike for the cause of safer working conditions, better compensation, and union recognition. Their demands quickly led to a stalemate between the all-black workforce and the almost entirely white leadership of Memphis.
After police attacked peaceful strikers with clubs and tear gas on February 23, the workers rallied behind an expanded campaign for social justice. “I AM A MAN,” became their persistent assertion. The cause of the striking workers overlapped perfectly with King’s own spring objective: to highlight the burden of poverty by mounting a national Poor People’s Campaign.
Many of the men on strike in Memphis worked full time and yet still qualified for welfare. King visited them three times between March 18 and early April to support their cause. During his final trip, on what would become the eve of his death, he gave one of the best speeches of his life—an extemporaneous oration colloquially known as the “Mountaintop Speech.”
During two research trips to Memphis I studied documents and photos in the archives of the University of Memphis, spoke with eyewitnesses to history, and walked the same routes marched by protestors in 1968. I lingered outside Clayborn Temple, now shuttered but formerly the meeting spot for countless marches. I stood on the stage of Mason Temple, the place where King told audience members how he had gone “to the mountaintop” and “seen the promised land.” I visited the site of his death at the Lorraine Motel, now incorporated into the National Civil Rights Museum, and I observed the perch from which his assassin fired the shot that killed King on April 4, 1968.
The spotlight on Memphis became so intense following King’s death that the city’s anti-union stance wavered and collapsed. Workers gained their collective bargaining rights, wage increases, and improved worker safety in a strike settlement on April 16.
When it came time to start writing, current events created a backdrop that rivaled the power of the Memphis history. I wrote Marching to the Mountaintop from my home in southern Wisconsin at the same time that public employees began demonstrating in nearby Madison. The juxtaposition of the two campaigns for collective bargaining rights became surreal. Immersed in writing about labor rights all day, I emerged to hear each night of fresh labor history in the making.
The book’s subsequent production process became equally riveting. Marty Ittner, a guest blogger on I.N.K, designed Marching to the Mountaintop using the same creative talents that she employed with my 2006 title Freedom Riders and every title I’ve published since—not to mention books by I.N.K. writers Sue Macy and Marfé Ferguson Delano. She transformed dog-eared black and white photos by employing dramatic silhouettes, bold color washes, and retro photo essays. She exploited every possible design element, even the quotation marks.
I dedicated Marching to the Mountaintop to my fourth-grade schoolteacher, Mrs. Christine Warren. I had entered her classroom the year integration reached my childhood home in Lexington, Virginia. Although many white parents quietly opted out of having their children placed in classrooms led by African Americans, my parents did not. Thus I became one of the few white students in Mrs. Warren’s class and spent the year celebrating her love of books. King died the next year while I was in fifth grade.
A storm raged in Memphis the evening of King’s final speech. (Consider this element one of the many facts which prompted my thanks to history.) He spoke that night of the promised land, a place he could visualize of equality and justice and respect. Where no one would have to declare “I AM A MAN” to be treated like a human being. Where students of all colors learned from teachers of every color. “I may not get there with you,” King said that stormy evening. “But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."
“Many people leaped to their feet, shouted, and clapped their hands. Others sat sobbing, consumed with emotion,” I wrote in my book. “As people drifted away from Mason Temple, they walked under unexpectedly calm skies”—(I did not make this up)—“and their excitement from the remarkable speech mellowed into a satisfying confidence about what lay ahead.”
Could Marching to the Mountaintop become my favorite book? I think it already has. (Don't tell!)