Hi guys! Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day! Today we are remembering one of the greatest figures in American history who has inspired millions of people across the nation both in his lifetime and after his death to strive for greater racial unity and equality. To celebrate his birthday, I’m interviewing Alice Faye Duncan about her newest children’s picture book Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop, which revolves around the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 and Dr. King’s role in it. Honestly, I had never heard of the Strike until I was first introduced to this book by my author friend Linda Williams Jackson, and I’m very surprised I haven’t heard about this since this took place 50 years ago in my home state! I hope you enjoy this interview, and please go check out and pre-order this book for you or any children you know!
About the Book
This historical fiction picture book for children ages 9-12 presents the story of nine-year-old Lorraine Jackson, who in 1968 witnessed the Memphis sanitation strike–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final stand for justice before his assassination–when her father, a sanitation worker, participated in the protest.
In February 1968, two African American sanitation workers were killed by unsafe equipment in Memphis, Tennessee. Outraged at the city’s refusal to recognize a labor union that would fight for higher pay and safer working conditions, sanitation workers went on strike. The strike lasted two months, during which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was called to help with the protests. While his presence was greatly inspiring to the community, this unfortunately would be his last stand for justice. He was assassinated in his Memphis hotel the day after delivering his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon in Mason Temple Church. Inspired by the memories of a teacher who participated in the strike as a child, author Alice Faye Duncan reveals the story of the Memphis sanitation strike from the perspective of a young girl with a riveting combination of poetry and prose.
1. Your picture book, Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop—is set to release in September (2018) and it has already become a #1 Amazon early release. This historical fiction tells the story of the Memphis Sanitation Strike through the eyes of a nine-year-old girl, Lorraine Jackson. What is the strike’s historical significance?
The Memphis Strike of 1968 was a non-violent protest where black sanitation workers left their garbage barrels on the curb in order to defend their dignity and demand economic justice in a city that abused their labor. White sanitation supervisors spoke to the men like children, called them buzzards and when it rained, they sent the black men home early without a full day’s pay.
It is important to know that Memphis sanitation workers initiated and organized the strike. This was not an idea conceived by Dr. King. However, Dr. King chose to help the men in their struggle for justice. Also, children like my main character, Lorraine Jackson, missed school and black parents sacrificed time to march in the strike over 65 days. Ultimately, it is Dr. King, who made the greatest sacrifice. While helping the striking workers in Memphis, he was murdered on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
2. What do you want young readers to learn from your character, Lorraine Jackson and Dr. King?
Freedom is not free. And to gain freedom and keep it, children and adults must be vigilant, courageous and ready to sacrifice their comfort.
3. Why did it take 10 years to write a story that is only 3,000 words?
It took 10 years to write MEMPHIS, MARTIN, AND THE MOUNTAINTOP because my proper entrance into the story, the right characters and organization for the plot, did not show up when I received the initial idea to write it. I wrote more than seven drafts for the story until I finally landed the perfect combination of poetry and prose.
4. What did the creative process for birthing this book teach you?
After writing for two decades, there is one thing that I clearly understand. The story that I am looking for is also looking for me. It is also my opinion that the writer serves as a vessel or instrument, who carries the story until it is ready to emerge. Writing is not easy. But, when the real germ of the story appears, there is clarity and the soul of the writer knows that she is on the train that will carry her and the reader to an ending that satisfies.
5. What makes this new book different from the other children’s books you have written?
I wrote my first non-fiction book in 1995. It was titled THE NATIONAL CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUM CELEBRATES EVERYDAY PEOPLE. That book was a chronology of the American Civil Rights Movement from 1954 – 1968.
MEMPHIS, MARTIN, AND THE MOUNTAINTOP is a historical-fiction that was inspired by the life of a Memphis preacher, Reverend Henry Logan Starks and his young daughter, Almella Yvonne. Almella marched in the sanitation strike with her mother and father. She sang freedom songs at the strike rallies and she also heard Dr. King deliver his last sermon, “The Mountaintop Speech.”
6. How did you stumble upon the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968? Could you describe for us the research process and what you did to make your book historically accurate?
I was born into a Memphis community that was populated with participants from the Memphis Sanitation Strike. The minister of my church, Reverend Henry Logan Starks, belonged to a group of preachers who organized strike strategies for the sanitation workers in ‘68. Our church photographer, Ernest Withers, took pictures of Dr. King during his very last sermon at Mason Temple Church. My neighbor, Officer Ed Reddit, was the policeman required to escort King when he traveled to Memphis.
My parents told me stories about the strike throughout my childhood. And on Sundays after church, my mother would take the long route home in order to drive by the Lorraine Motel and point to the balcony where Dr. King was killed. There was never a time when I did not know about Dr. King and the courage of black sanitation workers in my hometown.
As for the accuracy of my story, I researched books by Michael Honey, Hampton Sides, Joan Beifuss, and Ann Bausum. My most vital primary source was Dr. Almella Yvonne Starks. She was an eyewitness to the strike rallies, the strike riots, the army tanks in the streets and Dr. King’s Mountaintop Speech. While my story does not resemble Almella’s middle class family, I leaned on her first person accounts to give Lorraine Jackson bones, flesh and a voice.
7. How was your love for writing formed?
Both of my parents were voracious readers. My father put bookshelves in every room of the house and my mother hoarded books on the side of her bed. Between the both of them, I inherited an appreciation for reading, writing and talking books.
8. What are your favorite books, genres, and authors? Which ones have impacted you the most?
I discovered the poets, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, when I was a kid searching the crowded shelves in my parents’ personal library. While I loved each poet, my early writing was most similar to Paul Laurence Dunbar.
In my first picture book, WILLIE JEROME, I wrote it to be read aloud in the language I heard in school, my church and the corner store. Some people call that language Black English. I call it pristine poetry and effective communication.
9. What do you do when you are not writing?
I serve my Memphis community as a school librarian. I have worked as a librarian for two decades. I write during school vacation breaks and on the weekends.
10. Like you, I am from West Tennessee. I enjoy discovering how my city and state played an influential role in American history. As a teacher and librarian, why is it important to you that your students learn about Memphis and their local history?
“Sankofa” is a West African term which means you can only move forward by turning back to look at the past. It is important for you and all children to know about the tragedy and triumph of the Memphis Strike. The striking men taught each of us how to live and defend our dignity, while Dr. King showed each of us how to die for the cause of freedom, service, and love.
11. Americans across the nation celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. How does Dr. King inspire you in your everyday life?
As the minister of a church, Dr. King would tell his members that anybody can be great because anybody can serve. Serving and loving others is not painless. It takes courage and patience. I suppose then that Dr. King inspires me to esteem others higher than I esteem myself. He inspires me to disregard selfishness in order to help or bless somebody else.
12. Why do you only write picture books?
I don’t consider myself a trained poet. However, I approach picture books like writing a poem. I look for images and a rhythm to carry the text. I am drawn to picture books because they are compact, hearty, and it can take less than 6 months to write one well.
I have never composed a novel. However, 2018 is the year that I will meet that challenge. I intend to write a YA Novel. I don’t know the title or the topic. The page is blank at this moment. However, my heart is willing.
13. What is it like working with an illustrator? How do you reconcile your vision for the graphics with the illustrator’s artistic abilities and interpretations of the text?
The writer must surrender to the fact that she might have zero influence in the art department. I had little say in what Gregory Christie created for my MEMPHIS book. His vision for the art surpassed my grandest dreams. It works best most times when we all just stay in our own lane. Writers write. Painters paint.
14. What other books can we expect from you?
12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS IN TENNESSEE (Sterling Press—October 2018)
A SONG FOR GWENDOLYN BROOK (Sterling Press—January 2019)
15. Before you go, do you have any advice to share with aspiring writers reading this interview?
You can never overestimate the power and impact of revising a text. The first draft is SLAW! Always. Revisit a story, four and five times.
Thanks so much, Alice, for coming onto the blog to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday! Wishing you the best in your writing career!
About the Author
Alice Faye Duncan serves as a librarian. She also writes books for young readers and adults. Her most popular picture book is HONEY BABY SUGAR CHILD. It is a mother’s love song to her baby. The lyrical text sings and swings just like music. One is required to read it aloud with LOVE, JOY and SOUL! HONEY BABY SUGAR CHILD is a popular birthday gift for babies and a popular shower gift for brand new parents and grandparents, too! The book is presently in its 9th printing.
Alice’s book, MEMPHIS, MARTIN AND THE MOUNTAINTOP–The 1968 Sanitation Strike will debut in September–2018. It is a poetic paean dedicated to Dr. King’s last stand for economic justice and civil rights in the city of Memphis. The illustrator is Gregory Christie.
12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS IN TENNESSEE is a child’s travel guide across the Volunteer State (GO VOLS!). Two cousins in ugly holiday sweaters visit important landmarks throughout the state, while traveling in a clunky mini-van called the “Reindeer Express.” This book will debut in October–2018. The illustrator is Mary Uhles.
Finally, in celebration of words, the splendor of alliteration and the power of a poetic life–A SONG FOR GWENDOLYN BROOKS will debut in January 2019. This picture book biography is the life and times of Chicago poet–Gwendolyn Brooks. Miss Brooks was the very first African American writer to receive a Pulitzer Prize in 1950.
Pre-Order Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop today!
Are you excited for Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop? Do you like children’s picture books?
Comment below, or find me in one of my social media pages, and let’s chat!