Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968

By Alice Faye Duncan, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Calkins Creek, 2018. 40 pages. $17.95/hardcover. Recommended for ages 9–12.

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The Memphis sanitation strike of 1968 was one of several pivotal moments in the Civil Rights Movement, and it was in Memphis where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last speech on April 3: “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” While the speech and King have found their way into the annals of American history, and the circumstances that engendered the strike are well documented and studied, the voices of children-now-adults who lived through these events continue to take shape. Nine-year-old protagonist Lorraine embodies the childhood spirit and thoughts of Almella Starks-Umoja, whose parents were activists in the strike. Lorraine’s first-person narrative spans the months from January to that fateful April. As readers follow her recollections—informed by her parents’ concerns—and growing awareness of how the strike adversely affected the lives of the workers, we discover that the crisis also brought the family closer together. Far from shielding Lorraine from the facts, her parents included her in their decision making to the extent that “I learned what the grown folks knew.” It is Lorraine who reads the newspaper headlines to her semi-literate parents and witnesses their reactions.

While King answers the call of the strikers and galvanizes them, he is not the central character; that honor belongs to the Memphis community. Part of the untold story of the 1,300 striking men is the supportive role that mothers, daughters, and wives played in the march toward victory and the fight for dignity. Lorraine observes the actions her mother and other women took in absenting themselves from work as maids to join the marchers: carrying picket signs and keeping the faith and the household economy intact when all seemed lost. Just as the NAACP began to organize, “My mama answered their call. In her right hand, she carried her boycott sign. In her left, she held my hand.” The eyes of a child lend an edifying perspective on the weighty subject matter. In the face of tragedy, there emanates a ray of sunlight in the form of a moral lesson and spiritual uplift as Lorraine gradually becomes conscious that she is part of history in the making.

This 40-page middle grade fiction, appropriate for ages 9–12, explores the adolescent understanding of a tumultuous period in U.S. history and the lessons gleaned from the determination of a united community of families, friends, and allies. Author Alice Faye Duncan electrifies each short chapter with alternating prose and verse, vibrantly illustrated by R. Gregory Christie with human figures and places that acquire a life of their own. I recommend this book to parents and educators for its loving tone, artistic historical treatment, and for the practical timeline of events woven into its final pages.

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