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On Sacrifice and Alice Faye Duncan's Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop

Hand-lettered signs. Voices raised in protest. City-wide curfews and the National Guard. Families and neighbors and strangers standing together, taking to the street to demand justice. These are familiar scenes, flickering across our TV screens and social media feeds. These are also the scenes depicted in Alice Faye Duncan's Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie.

This gorgeous picture book combines Christie's award-winning artistry with Duncan's award-winning text, and the outcome -- unsurprisingly -- is a win for readers everywhere. Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop draws upon the true story of a young girl in Memphis who joined her parents in the protests surrounding the strike of the city's sanitation workers. Though these events led up to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., many fail to place this economic strike in the same important context as the broader Civil Rights movement King is rightly associated with.

The Poor People's Campaign was launched in 1968 by the SCLC and King and was carried out by Ralph Abernathy in the wake of King's untimely death in Memphis. The sanitation strike began in February after Echol Cole and Robert Walker, sanitation workers in the city, were crushed by a poorly-maintained garbage truck. Their fellow workers formed a labor union (the AFSCME) to advocate for their rights, and on February 12, thirteen-hundred essential workers walked off the job. King and the SCLC saw this strike as the next vital step in ensuring equity and justice for African Americans. Duncan chronicles all this and more through the eyes of young Lorraine Jackson, daughter of a sanitation worker and a maid, and eyewitness to King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech at Mason Temple Church. The day after this speech, King was assassinated on the balcony of the Memphis hotel that is now the National Civil Rights Museum.

Duncan opens the book with a quote from King:

"For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory."

King, of course, sacrificed his life for "that which is right." The sanitation workers and their families sacrificed tremendously during the 65-day strike. Countless Black Americans have sacrificed over the years as we continue to grapple with issues of injustice, inequality, and oppression. The question King now poses to all of us, the question Duncan and Christie provide with their beautiful and powerful collaboration, is

What are you willing to sacrifice?

Perhaps today, more than 50 years after the protests of 1968, White Americans will finally recognize that the sacrifice must stop landing on the backs of Black Americans. Near the end of the book, Duncan offers these important words:

So much was won.

So much was lost.

Freedom is never free.

May stories like this one help us remember and give us the vision to make the necessary sacrifices.

More Resources:

Click here for a read aloud video of Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop created by the Memphis Public Library. And here is my interview with the author.


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