On April 4 every year since 1968, Memphis remembers its part as the backdrop to one of history's fateful moments, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel.
King came to Memphis 44 years ago to support striking garbage workers at the invitation of the Methodist minister and civil rights activist James Lawson. Lawson recalls the era -- "the nobility and joy of being fully alive as children of life" -- in a foreword he wrote for "Marching to the Mountaintop" (National Geographic Society, $19.95), a primer on the movement by Ann Bausum.
The author will make two appearances in Memphis with her book -- at The Booksellers in Laurelwood at 6 p.m. Thursday and at the Central Library at 5:30 p.m. April 9.
Subtitled "How Poverty, Labor Fights, and Civil Rights Set the Stage for Martin Luther King Jr.'s Final Hours," the 100-page book for readers 10 and up has 70 images. (An adult reader with sketchy knowledge of the times will find a straightforward explanation of the labor and race issues that drew King into the tempest.) Large, vivid type and reproductions of protest signs reflect the turbulence of the 1960s.
Bausum first reminds us that garbage was gross 50 years ago, when "people really cooked." The "wet, smelly, slippery bones of the chicken carcass ... Mold-fuzzy bread. Spoiled fruit. Slimy potato peels. Scum-coated eggshells." And the Memphis men who collected the garbage in giant, corroding washtubs "showed up for work every day knowing they would be treated like garbage," she writes.
"Kids have grown up with garbage in plastic bags that you place on the curb, and which go away at intervals," said Bausum, who lives in Beloit, Wis., by telephone last week. "The style of garbage in the 1960s was sensual in all the wrong ways."
Her first chapter, "Death in Memphis," recreates the garbage-truck accident that crushed and killed two sanitation workers and shocked the city's burgeoning labor movement into action. Bausum quotes a horrified eyewitness who watched as one of the men was pulled into the opening of the refuse barrel and swallowed. Another man was already inside.
"To some extent that's starting at the beginning," Bausum says of the nightmarish details. "It's a hook that was riveting at the time to the workers and riveting to readers today. When I speak about the book, people listen differently after they hear that story."
Since 2000, Bausum has written nine history books published by National Geographic, most with extensive subtitles: "Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement"; "With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman's Right to Vote"; and "Muckrakers: How Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens Helped Expose Scandal, Inspire Reform, and Invent Investigative Journalism."
Bausum, 54, says Ernest Withers' photograph of Memphis strikers holding their famed I Am a Man signs was one of the things that "made me want to write this book."
She visited Memphis in 2007 to speak about "Freedom Riders" and says, "I fell in love with it. I'm not even sure if it consciously influenced me, but it influenced me by association that Memphis is a cool place. ... It's a perfect combination of history and the prospect on the bluffs, culture, with music and food and Southern hospitality thrown in. The history is so rich and so serious and I tend to write about serious history."
Next on her list of books to write, she says, is "the 1966 March Against Fear, from Memphis to Jackson, that was initiated by James Meredith and sustained by the civil rights movement after Meredith was attacked near Hernando, Miss." She plans to return to archives at the University of Memphis' special collections, where she did much of her research for "Marching to the Mountaintop." National Geographic will publish the book in 2014.
Ann Bausum will speak about and sign "Marching to the Mountaintop" at 6 p.m. Thursday at The Booksellers at Laurelwood, 387 Perkins Road Extended.
At 5:30 p.m. April 9, Bausum will speak at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, 3030 Poplar.
The Rev. James Lawson also is a presence, if distant, in a new book by Ben Kamin called "Room 306: The National Story of the Lorraine Motel" (Michigan State University Press, $24.95).
High-profile Memphis figures including Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, Maxine Smith, Pitt Hyde and Beverly Robertson talk about the place and its meaning in 14 chapters that start with the history and conclude with the creation of and inspiration provided by the National Civil Rights Museum at the site.
Lawson's connection to the museum is fraught, Kamin writes. "I asked James Lawson about the Lorraine Motel. He really did not want to discuss it. With some brusqueness, he said, 'I really have only been there once since... then,'" the night King was killed. Kamin says the museum's president, Beverly Robertson, has been frustrated by Lawson's "disengagement" from the site. "We have got to find a way to get Jim Lawson in here," he quotes Robertson saying. "He was so much part of what happened in Memphis in 1968."
Kamin will appear at the museum from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, as part of the museum's "April 4 Commemoration" events.
Kamin, a rabbi, also wrote "Nothing like Sunshine: A Story in the Aftermath of the MLK Assassination" about his troubled friendship with a black classmate at Woodward High School in Cincinnati in the 1960s.
The National Civil Rights Museum is Downtown at 450 Mulberry. Call (901) 521-9699 or go to civilrightsmuseum.org for information.
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