Marching to the Mountaintop

  • "I've been to the mountaintop...And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!"

    On Wednesday, April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered one of the most stirring speeches of his career. His vision of the promised land and his confidence that it could be reached was for his audience the essence of what it would mean for a dream to come alive. They were the sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee, a group of poor African-American men who had spent their lives being treated like garbage. The men were completing week eight of a strike to improve working conditions—eight brutal weeks of being stonewalled after a lifetime of being ignored. King galvanized them and gave them hope. But not 24 hours later, he was dead, killed by an assassin's bullet.

    The Memphis strikers—and the world—were left behind. Left to struggle to that elusive mountaintop and the promised land beyond.

    Rich with primary source quotations, archival material, and newly uncovered images, Marching to the Mountaintop reads like a conversation with history. In award-winning author Ann Bausum's skillful hands, it's a conversation that readers will find gripping, because it's a history that defines our nation's heart and soul.

  • I'm an organized, hard-working person. I work at my desk almost every day, at least for a few hours, and before I leave my office I determine my goals for the next day's labor. I've learned that this 30-second review helps me wake up focused and ready to go, an important mindset to have as someone who writes at home and could just as easily find plenty of laundry, bookkeeping, or housework to do upon waking.

    Ask any self-employed person how they stay focused at a home office, and you would probably get some variation on this system. Ask any author how they write, and you would definitely hear an additional twist, because writing can require an extra jolt of infusion: inspiration. Inspiration to write does not arrive on schedule. It cannot be placed on tomorrow's to-do list. Inspiration strikes when you least expect it. At the grocery store. On a car ride. During exercise. Or in the middle of the night.

    So it was for me on Thursday, December 16, 2010, when I woke up with the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., in my head: "We, as a people, will get to the promised land." Related phrases tumbled out of sleepy recollection. "Inch toward freedom." "Creep toward justice." "We as a people will get there." I scrambled in the dark to find a pencil and paper, knowing from experience that no matter how well I might be able to convince myself that I would remember them, the words would otherwise vanish by morning. (Just like other authors, I keep scraps of paper and pencil by my bed, in my coat pockets, in my car, etc., so that I am armed when inspiration strikes.)

    That night, without needing to turn on a light, I scribbled the phrases down, realizing I had glimpsed an ending for Marching to the Mountaintop. Somehow, even in the midst of sleep, my brain—and perhaps the forces of the universe—were working on this writing project and had given me the inspiration I needed to conclude the book.

    I returned to sleep and woke after dawn on Thursday morning. Grabbing my scribbles and the threads of inspiration they represented, I dashed to my office and began building on the previous night's gifts. (Yes, sometimes I show up for work in my pajamas.) I ignored the day's to-do list as I latched onto that spirit of inspiration and rode it through the typing of several pages of a rough draft.

    It would be three months before I returned to those pages and completed the afterword for Marching to the Mountaintop. First I had to write the rest of the book. And I had to finish my research for the project—which is what I had been doing before inspiration struck. When I was ready to finish the afterword, I pulled out my work from December, including that original set of scribbles. I knew my early writing was just a beginning, but it was invaluable, and a phrase or two that I had seized from sleep did find their way into the final text. (See page 91 of the book.) More importantly, though, the emotion of that inspiration, and the idea of using the words from King's "Mountaintop" speech as part of a closing refrain, can be traced to that sleepy moment in December when I grabbed hold of inspiration and did not let it go.

    Travel can be inspiring, too. I am including a few snapshots from my research trips to Memphis in the following photo essay so that you can see some of the places where I found inspiration during my travels.

  • « 1 of 1 »


    • Other sources of inspiration: Days of research at the McWherter Library at the University of Memphis.


    • Visiting the National Civil Rights Museum at the former Lorraine Motel.


    • Standing in Mason Temple where Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his "Mountaintop" speech.


    • Viewing Clayborn Temple, an organizing hub for the strike (shuttered and fenced, it still echoes with history).


    • Retracing the steps of picket marchers on Beale Street through downtown Memphis.

  • Labor Fights, Civil Rights,
    and the Death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Available as a program for adults, teens, and children ages 10 and up
    by Ann Bausum

    Many people don't know that Martin Luther King, Jr., died in Memphis, Tennessee, and fewer still realize that he placed himself there to support striking poor people. I'll provide the context for King's death and illustrate how his passion for social justice endured to the end of his life.

    This program blends archival images with the history shared in Marching to the Mountaintop. We'll explore why Memphis sanitation workers went out on strike, how the labor dispute turned into a fight for civil rights, and why King took an interest in the effort.

    King made three trips to Memphis in support of the city's African-American sanitation workers that spring of 1968. During his third visit he gave what is arguably one of his most powerful addresses, the so-called Mountaintop Speech. Together we'll ride the highs of that oration and explore the depths of the tragedy that followed a day later with King's assassination on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

    Length: approximately 45 minutes for the program, 10-15 minutes for questions.

    Technical requirements: LCD projector and projection screen.

  • Armed with Nonviolence:
    Stories from the Fight for Human Rights

    A program for teens and adults
    by Ann Bausum

    This program draws from Marching to the Mountaintop, Freedom Riders and With Courage and Cloth to show parallel uses of nonviolent resistance in the fight for human rights. During the 1910s women picketed the White House and went to jail in their quest for the right to vote. Fifty years later participants in the Civil Rights Movement used nonviolent protests to break down the barriers of segregation. Using stories from these campaigns and quotes from the times, I show how qualities like courage, ingenuity, camaraderie, and the influence of the news media have made the difference in winning fights for human rights. The program includes examples of how music played a part in each of the featured struggles, as well.

    Length: 50 minutes, 10-15 minutes for questions.

    Technical requirements: LCD projector and projection screen.

    Audience feedback on this program:

    "The topic [Armed with Nonviolence] was of interest to all age groups. Anyone old enough to go to school and read would be able to comprehend what Ann was explaining. It was not "too simple," [but] just right. You caught and held people's attention! Your connections and ways of comparing the events was fantastic. Ann is a gracious and humble author. She was easy to work with and made it easy to host her program."
    —Public school librarian and conference program chair, Wisconsin

  • "The intersection of the 1968 Memphis garbage strike, the Poor People's Campaign and the last days of Martin Luther King Jr. is brought to vivid life in this fine work of history writing....This is history from the ground up...."
    Kirkus
    December 15, 2011

    "...this richly historic book...will give kids who know the basics of King's life a greater understanding of the injustice he fought so hard against and ultimately gave his life to end. As much as this book will tell you about King, it will tell you more about how black people were treated in this country 50 years ago. It may shock you; it should make you think...."
    Washington Post, Kid's Post
    January 13, 2012

    "...This beautifully illustrated, clearly laid out recounting of King's involvement with the [Memphis sanitation workers'] strike presents the precipitating causes as well as the course of the action....The combination of pictorial presentation with informative text should draw in adolescent readers....This is an excellent source for curricular extension in American history courses."
    School Library Journal, starred review
    March 2012

    "In this riveting account of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, Bausum adroitly handles both the labor action itself...and what would be the final civil rights action of Dr. King's storied career....Clearly organized and densely illustrated, this title includes features such as an introductory cast of characters, an annotated timeline of the strike, and a list of King's campaigns from 1955 through 1968...."
    The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, starred review
    March 2012

    "Bausum is one of my absolute favorite nonfiction writers, for both her politics and her impeccable prose. Here she intertwines the stories of the 1968 Memphis garbage strike and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last days...."
    The YALSA Hub, "Mid-year Nonfiction Round-up"
    July 27, 2012

    "Author Ann Bausum deftly and compelling explores two connected stories in this exemplary work of research and writing....There is an abundance of photographs and other visual matter, some of it intentionally echoing photo spreads and design elements of the period."
    CCBC Choices 2013

  • 2013 Carter G. Woodson Book Award
    National Council for the Social Studies

    2013 Jane Addams Children's Book Honor Award
    Sponsored by the Jane Addams Peace Association and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom to honor books of excellence that promote the cause of peace, social justice, world community, and the equality of the sexes and all races

    2013 Best Books of the Year, Bank Street College of Education

    Society of Midland Authors
    Finalist Award for Children's Nonfiction

    Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People
    National Council for the Social Studies & Children's Book Council

    Choices 2013
    Cooperative Children's Book Center, University of Wisconsin

    Capitol Choices Noteworthy Titles for Children and Teens

  • African American Odyssey
    Library of Congress online exhibit

    AFSCME
    American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
    "AFSCME and Dr. King"

    "I AM A MAN"

    The King Center

    National Civil Rights Museum

    SCLC
    Southern Christian Leadership Conference

    Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

    We Shall Overcome
    Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement
    National Park Service Travel Itinerary

    Ernest C. Withers

    Going Down Jericho Road—The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign by Michael K. Honey. W.W. Norton & Company, 2007.

    Hellhound on His Trail—The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin by Hampton Sides. Doubleday, 2010.

    I Am a Man—Photographs of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memphis Publishing Company, 1993.

    If I Had a Hammer—Songs of Hope and Struggle performed by Pete Seeger, Smithsonian Folkways, 1998.

    I Have a Dream—Writings and Speeches that Changed the World by Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington. HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.

    I'm Gonna Let It Shine—A Gathering of Voices for Freedom by Round River Records, 1990.

    M.L.K.—Journey of a King by Tonya Bolden. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2007.

  • •  Marching to the Mountaintop: How Poverty, Labor Fights, and Civil Rights Set the Stage for Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Final Hours

    •  Publication date: January 10, 2012

    •  National Geographic Society

    •  $19.95

    •  104 pages, hardcover

    •  More than 70 archival photos and illustrations

    •  Extensive back matter, including a comparative look at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s involvement in critical campaigns of the civil rights movement, time line, research notes, citations, resource guide, bibliography, index

    •  ISBN 978-1-4263-0939-7

    •  Audio edition available from Recorded Books