Hi guys! Today is the 50th commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, which took place in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King was one of the greatest figures in American history, and to honor his legacy, this month’s LILbooKtalk is dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement. Alice Faye Duncan and Andrew Maraniss, two local Tennessee authors, are here today to discuss “Portraying Pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement.” I hope you find this panel insightful.
About Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop
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.
Martin, Memphis, and the Mountaintop releases on August 28, 2018!
About Strong Inside: Young Reader’s Edition
The inspirational true story of the first African American to play college basketball in the deeply segregated Southeastern Conference–a powerful moment in Black history.
Perry Wallace was born at an historic crossroads in U.S. history. He entered kindergarten the year that the Brown v. Board of Education decision led to integrated schools, allowing blacks and whites to learn side by side. A week after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Wallace enrolled in high school and his sensational jumping, dunking, and rebounding abilities quickly earned him the attention of college basketball recruiters from top schools across the nation. In his senior year his Pearl High School basketball team won Tennessee’s first racially-integrated state tournament.
The world seemed to be opening up at just the right time, and when Vanderbilt University recruited Wallace to play basketball, he courageously accepted the assignment to desegregate the Southeastern Conference. The hateful experiences he would endure on campus and in the hostile gymnasiums of the Deep South turned out to be the stuff of nightmares. Yet Wallace persisted, endured, and met this unthinkable challenge head on. This insightful biography digs deep beneath the surface to reveal a complicated, profound, and inspiring story of an athlete turned civil rights trailblazer.
Strong Inside: Young Reader’s Edition just released a paperback edition!
Questions are in bold
Kester: The first author we have today is Alice Faye Duncan, a Memphis-based author whose upcoming children’s picture book Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop is releasing in August! Would you like to describe a bit about your book and yourself?
Alice: I am a school librarian who writes books for young readers. Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop is the story of the 1968 Sanitation Strike that is told through the eyes of a 9 year old girl, Lorraine Jackson. It is also the story of Dr. King’s last stand for justice and his assassination.
Kester: I’m super excited to read your book, Alice! I can’t wait until it comes out! Alongside Alice, we have Andrew Maraniss, a Nashville-based author whose New York Times bestselling biography Strong Inside has been adapted into a Young Reader’s Edition just last year! Could you tell us a bit about your latest biography and your background?
Andrew: Thanks, Kester! I am really excited for Alice’s book, too. I was just in Memphis a few weeks ago and visited the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated. It’s a very important topic for young readers, not just the assassination but the circumstances of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. As for Strong Inside, it’s a biography of Perry Wallace, who was the first African American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. He is someone I first wrote about when I was a sophomore at Vanderbilt way back in 1989! I did a paper about him for a Black History class and his story stuck in my mind. Finally I decided to write a book about him. He is so much more than just a basketball player. He was a high school valedictorian, engineering major at Vandy, Columbia University law graduate, National Guard veteran, US Justice Department attorney, and law school professor. He is the most impressive person I ever met.
Alice: Awesome! I now must learn more about Perry Wallace. Great Work, Andrew! By the way, I am a big Lusia Harris Stewart fan. I am working on her biography for children. She is the first woman officially drafted into the NBA.
Andrew: Fantastic! I don’t know much about her. When was she drafted?
Alice: She was drafted in 1977 by the New Orleans Jazz! But she had the Mississippi Blues! She was from the Delta!
Andrew: That’s really cool. I am sitting outside my daughter’s first grade basketball team practice right now. Maybe she’ll be drafted someday, too!
Alice: I am writing my book for your daughter.
Kester: That’s so awesome to hear from the both of you! Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop revolves around the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s role in it while Strong Inside: Young Reader’s Edition follows Perry Wallace, the first African American athlete to play in the SEC, as he overcomes racism and prejudice throughout his life and his collegiate career. Alice and Andrew, how did you both discover, respectively, the strikes and Perry Wallace? What prompted you to write a book about these people and events?
Andrew: I first learned about Perry Wallace when I was a student at Vanderbilt. A student a year ahead of me wrote an article for a campus magazine about the time Perry first played a game in the state of Mississippi, at Mississippi State University in 1967. He was concerned that he might be shot out on the basketball court, just for being African American. I was a kid who was interested in sports and history and I was taking a Black History class. I asked my professor, Dr. Yollette Jones, if it was OK to write about sports in college. I thought she might say no, that it wasn’t a serious enough topic. Thankfully she said yes! So I called Perry and interviewed him for my paper. It remained the most interesting thing I had ever done. I couldn’t get Perry off my mind. So, 17 years later, I decided I wanted to write a book about him. I emailed him to see if he remembered me and my paper. He did! And he said he thought it would be great if I wrote about him. I didn’t need his permission, but I was happy to have his support.
Alice: Many of the participants in the 1968 strike lived on my street or attended my church, when I was a young child. It is a story that I grew up knowing all of my life. As a school librarian, I found it odd that there were no picture books about the subject. So, I set out to write the book, myself. This is my same reason for writing about Lusia Harris. Not one picture book or adult book addresses her legendary place in American sports.
Andrew: There are so many “hidden figures” who did amazing things who simply haven’t had their stories told yet. Whenever I visit a classroom, I tell the students they can be the ones to uncover those stories.
Alice: Andrew, as I writer, I believe that the story I am seeking is also seeking me. Perry Wallace was waiting on a “you.”
Andrew: We became very, very close friends and I always felt like it was a special,
“meant to be” kind of relationship. I was born a week before he played his last game in college. Our birthdays were 5 days apart. We both went to Vanderbilt. I arrived when he was first invited back to be honored. He ended up living in Silver Spring, Maryland, which is where I went to elementary school!
Alice: Uncanny, Andrew!
Kester: I definitely agree that there are so many “hidden figures” history that we need to uncover. When I read your book, Andrew, I found myself relating so much to Perry Wallace and loved both him and his story. He’s definitely inspiring and I wish more people knew about him.
Andrew: And your stories seem so tailor made for you too, Alice. I think the passion for your subject always shines through.
Kester: Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop is going to be awesome, I know that for sure!
Alice: Thank you, both. We shall see. It required 10 years from writing it to publishing it.
Andrew: So glad you stuck with it! Strong Inside took me 8 years — I can relate!
Alice: Here is the new discovery that I made. I have been researching and writing about the Civil Rights Movement as it took place in Memphis since 1993. Never, once, did I ask thoughtful questions about Coretta Scott King and her specific role in the movement. Then, two months ago, I picked up her autobiography. I now suggest that academics and students spend the next 50 years studying her life and activism. She was astute and able to build coalitions that have given us the Dr. King that children know and love today.
Kester: So what is it like writing for children and younger readers? What are some of the challenges of writing a picture book (for Alice) or adapting a larger biography into a middle school edition (for Andrew)?
Andrew: The biggest challenge for me was literally the editing — taking a nearly 200,000 word book and converting it to around 40,000 words. It was important to me that it not lose anything in the process, that the story not be “whitewashed” for young readers. I felt it only did justice to Perry if they learned the same story as adults and felt what Perry felt. That meant confronting young readers with the racism Perry encountered. Thankfully the publisher agreed.
I have loved visiting students and my next book will be for young readers, not adults. I want to try to write the kids of books I would have read as a middle and high schooler!
Alice: Writing picture books is like writing a song lyric. You have to pack a lot of information and emotion in a few words. It is not a task that comes easily.
My greatest challenge with writing about Lusia Harris and Coretta Scott King is presenting the salient points in a way that is accessible and inviting to the young reader. The challenge keeps me fighting and engaged.
Andrew: I think people underestimate that about children’s books, Alice! I’ve thought about doing a picture book about Perry and have had a hard time figuring out how to tell the story in so few words!
Alice: Toni Morrison says that she writes the kind of books that she wishes to read.
Andrew: Well, if she says it, then I think it’s a good idea!
Kester: Back in February, I posted a discussion post on why I believe MG has so much power, and that can be attributed to children’s books, too. There’s so much potential children’s and MG books have to change people’s lives, and that power should not be underestimated.
Andrew: I think that’s true, Kester. There is great power in books. I also think students already possess great power and possibilities, as we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks in Florida. Sometimes books can remind them of that and encourage them to act.
Kester: I definitely agree! The best books are the ones that make a tremendous impact on you to where you’re driven to do something or change something.
Alice: Middle Grade books are also still in keeping with classic literature–books of old. Nothing is really new fangled. For example, there is no foul language and no sex, and the focus is primarily emotional exploration and personal change. That’s everything found in the classics!
Andrew: That’s a really interesting point and I hadn’t really thought of MG books in those terms before but you are so right!
Kester: My next question is this: Which pioneers and events of the Civil Rights Movement inspire you the most, and how do they impact you in your everyday lives?
Alice: If you had asked me this question two months ago, I would have answered, Rev. Henry Logan Starks, Fannie Lou Hamer or Dr. King. As of today, they must take a seat behind my new hero–Coretta Scott King from Heiberger, Alabama.
Andrew: As for your question, Kester, Perry Wallace used to say that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. Sometimes we think of civil rights figures as these larger than life heroes, but they were just regular people who stepped up in courageous ways. We all have that capability. We can choose to be bystanders or upstanders, standing up for what we believe in or people who are being treated unfairly. In terms of specific people, of course Perry Wallace is the person I have come to admire most, but I will also bring up a name that applies to both Alice’s book and mind: the Reverend James Lawson, who was one of the leading theorists on non-violence. He inspired Perry and the sanitation strike!
Alice: It was Mrs. King who said, “Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” In other words, no generation will escape the need to press for equality and fairness. For always, a struggle will continue.
Andrew: Perry Wallace had a chance to meet Fannie Lou Hamer when she came to speak at Vanderbilt while he was a student and he told me how inspired he was by her. A small woman (in comparison to him at 6′ 5″) who blew him away with her presence!
Alice: Speaking of Mrs. Hamer, it was Coretta Scott King who said, “Women, if the soul of this nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul.” Mrs. Hamer carried the soul of her people in every fiber of her being. She was mighty.
Andrew: We are seeing that again today.
Kester: Here’s the next question! Since the focus of your books hits very close to home here in Tennessee, why do you believe it is important for children to learn more about their local history?
Alice: As for young people and activism, since 1964, African Americans and other minorities have leaned on the laurels of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As a entire nation, those of us who love freedom and justice for all, are understanding that we must continue to be vigilant and work toward justice. The struggle continues.
A child is bolstered and self-esteem is healthy when that child understands she comes from a legacy of resilience and goodness. Thus, it is necessary to know local history and family history, too.
Andrew: Well, I think the best stories have universal themes and can be enjoyed by readers anywhere, but it IS important for young people to understand their own local history. That’s where change begins, for one thing. For another, I think students simply just find it more interesting when they recognize certain names or places in a book they are reading. And if that sparks a greater interest in reading and studying history, then that can stick with them the rest of their lives.
Kester: Certainly! My AP US History teacher (who’s also our county historian) is always incorporating how things or people we’ve learned about relates to my hometown of Paris. There’s so much hidden history that it’s fascinating!
Alice: My book 12 Days of Christmas in Tennessee will be released in October 2018. It is a travelogue/Christmas book that takes children on a journey to Tennessee historical sites and land formations. Some of the places visited are the Lost Sea in Sweet Water and Tina Turner’s Flagg Grove School in West Tennessee.
Andrew: That sounds like a really fun book, and a great Christmas present!
Alice: Thank you. I bring it up because it addresses TN History. Like, Andrew Jackson and the Hermitage. We have to take the ugly with the good.
Kester: Both of you chose very different formats to write your stories. Could you describe to us the thought process as you decided to write a children’s picture book or a middle grade biography?
Andrew: Writing narrative non-fiction is the kind of writing I think I can do best. It’s my favorite way to tell a story. I love every part of it, from the interviews and library research to the outlining and writing. And at the most important parts of Perry’s life, he was a teenager. Whether someone cares about basketball or not is irrelevant — he was encountering challenges and trying to overcome them, something all middle schoolers can relate to.
Alice: I don’t really consider myself a poet, but I write in a lyrical style that is conducive to picture books.
My great ambition this year is to write a longer text. I was excited about writing a YA Novel this year. And then, I stumbled across the harrowing and courageous life of Coretta Scott King. She has impeded my progress. I am presently wrestling with a picture book text about her life. OH. WELL. Picture books have chosen me as my favorite genre.
Kester: Before we end this LILbooKtalk, would you both like to share any advice to young readers and writers who are viewing this discussion?
Andrew: Keep reading! And keep writing! My dad used to say there’s no excuse for being bored – you can always read a book.
Alice: After researching the American Civil Rights Movement for 20 years, I have learned 4 important things from the life of Dr. King. In actualizing your hopes and dreams,
- Make a plan with the end in view
- With your plans, leave yourself open to miracles and chance encounters
- Add effective people to your team and cut team members, who hinder you.
- And finally, when you do succeed, be sure to help someone else.
Andrew: Great advice! Thank you Kester and Alice, this was a lot of fun! Kester, you are doing amazing work, I admire all that you do to encourage reading. Alice, it was a pleasure joining you for this chat. Hope to see you someday soon!
Alice: Andrew and Kester, this was fantastic! Keep shining your light! Write ON! Write ON! Until we meet in the Real World!!!
Kester: Thanks so much, both of you, for coming back onto the blog! It’s been my honor and pleasure to host this chat!
Alice Faye Duncan writes books for young readers and adults. Her most popular picture book for infants 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 must read it aloud with LOVE, JOY and SOUL!
Alice’s book, MEMPHIS, MARTIN AND THE MOUNTAINTOP (The 1968 Sanitation Strike) will debut August 2018. It is a poetic paean for school age students that explores Dr. King’s assassination and his last stand for economic justice in the city of Memphis. The illustrator is Caldecott Honor recipient, 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.
A New York Times bestseller, Strong Inside is the first book by Andrew Maraniss. Andrew studied history at Vanderbilt University as a recipient of the Fred Russell – Grantland Rice sportswriting scholarship, earning the school’s Alexander Award for excellence in journalism and graduating in 1992. He then worked for five years in Vanderbilt’s athletic department as the associate director of media relations, dealing primarily with the men’s basketball team. In 1998, he served as the media relations manager for the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays during the team’s inaugural season, and then returned to Nashville to join MP&F Public Relations. He is now a Visiting Author and Visiting Innovator at Vanderbilt and a contributor to ESPN’s TheUndefeated.com. The son of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author David Maraniss and trailblazing environmentalist Linda Maraniss, Andrew was born in Madison, Wis., grew up in Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas and now lives in Brentwood, Tenn., with his wife Alison, and their two young children. Follow Andrew on Twitter @trublu24 and visit his website at andrewmaraniss.com.
Strong Inside was the recipient of the 2015 Lillian Smith Book Award and the lone Special Recognition honor at the 2015 RFK Book Awards. The Young Reader edition was named one of the Top 10 Biographies and Top 10 Sports Books of 2017 by the American Library Association.
Andrew has appeared on several national media programs, including NPR’s All Things Considered and Only A Game, NBC’s Meet The Press, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, ESPN’s Keith Olbermann Show, ESPN Radio’s The Sporting Life, and the SEC Network’s Paul Finebaum Show.
Have you read any of Andrew’s or Alice’s books? What are some of your favorite books that revolve around the Civil Rights Movement?
Comment below, or find me in one of my social media pages, and let’s chat!