Martin Rising: Requiem for a King

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
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Powerful poems examine the final months of MLK's life.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

References to significant civil rights events: March on Washington, "I Have a Dream" speech, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Memphis sanitation workers' strike, "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech. Names of civil rights figures: the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Bernard Lee, Andrew Young, the Rev. James Lawson. Dates of MLK's birth and death. Info about assassination and James Earl Ray. Wife Coretta Scott King and names of MLK's children. Concept of civil disobedience. Other figures and influences: Jackie Robinson, Mahalia Jackson, FDR, Lincoln, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Sermon on the Mount.

Positive Messages

In Martin Luther King Jr.'s own words: "Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars." "There is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world." "We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love." "Love is the key to the solution of the problems of the world." "We, as a people, will get to the promised land!"

Positive Role Models & Representations

Martin Luther King Jr. stood up for the civil rights of his fellow African-Americans in the Jim Crow South, where protests were met with vehement opposition and violence. He was a student of Gandhi's nonviolent tactics, and a deeply religious Christian preacher who used his gift for eloquent, inspirational oratory to advocate for serious change through nonviolent means. He worked hard even in the last months, when depressed at the slow pace of change and at outbreaks of violence, at a bomb threat directed at him, and even when he was feverish with a flu.

Violence

MLK's assassination: Rev. Abernathy hears "a dull, sudden ... Pop!" MLK's "white shirt -- spattered red! His necktie, ripped off by the force of that anonymous pop!" On MLK's flight to Memphis, there's a bomb threat. The Memphis march devolves into angry violence, with looting, glass bottles hurled, a riot, police with billy clubs and tear gas. Riots erupt after the assassination, with baseball bats, smashing glass.

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What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Martin Rising: Requiem for a King is by multi-award-winning African-American wife-husband author and illustrator team Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney (Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America) who've taken an unusual approach in this book about Martin Luther King Jr. Author Andrea Davis Pinkney crafted a series of poems that zoom in on the tumultuous last months of King's life, when he went to Memphis during the sanitation workers' strike, gave his famous "I’ve Been to the Mountaintop" speech, and was assassinated. The poetry plus the tight focus on the confined time period make this beautiful volume best for slightly older kids (middle school and beyond) who have some overall knowledge of the civil rights movement and of King's larger importance. Though kids can construct the underlying history from the information in the poems, there's a timeline and additional information detailing the events in Memphis.

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What's the story?

MARTIN RISING: REQUIEM FOR A KING begins with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth, then jumps to his birthday in 1968, three months before he was assassinated. During those months, King traveled back and forth to Memphis to lend support to the sanitation workers' strike, which was spurred when two African-American workers were accidentally crushed to death in a truck compactor. In Memphis, King delivered his "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech and, with other civil rights leaders, led a march that erupted into violence. He was planning another march when he was assassinated. The book includes poems about the assassination itself, the alleged assassin, James Earl Ray, and King's funeral. Many poems focus on historically significant events, and others touch on King's personal life, including a bout of the flu, a tension-releasing pillow fight with other civil rights leaders, and his love for his family.

Is it any good?

It's risky to use poetry to write about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., but risks pay off beautifully in this moving and informative book. The "docu-poems" in Andrea Davis Pinkney's Martin Rising: Requiem for a King set a mood while documenting events. Confining the time to the three months leading up to the assassination allows kids to zoom in on a slice of civil rights history. Kids can piece the history together from clues in the poems and learn more from the book's informative back matter. Illustrator Brian Pinkney used watercolor, gouache, and India ink to create art that feels as poetic as the text. The washy golden yellows and moody blues turn stormy when King is shot.

In another risky move, the text doesn't tie the ragged strands of the assassination in a neat bow. One poem, entitled "Unsolved History," asks the thought-provoking questions: "Who was Martin's true assassin?" "Did somebody put him up to it?" "Is the government the guilty party?" Though the overall subject matter of King's assassination is sad and bleak, art at the end pictures King in the center of a golden Easter Sunday sun, closing on a note of hope. "But in the swill of our tears, we find gladness, too .... His life well lived for peace and good. Martin's spirit -- still alive."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the historical events in Martin Rising: Requiem for a King. Did you know about the sanitation workers' strike in Memphis, and Dr. King's assassination? Why do you think the author decided to limit the time span to those last months?

  • Why do you think the author chose to tell this history using poems rather than straight text? How are these poems different from others you've read? As you read them, were you able to understand the history the poems were based on?

  • Why do you think the poem "Unsolved History" asks questions about the assassination? Can you find information from other trusted sources about King's alleged killer, James Earl Ray? Why do you think the King family doesn't believe Ray was the assassin? If Ray wasn't responsible, who might be?

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