Update: In June, MLK50 received a significant grant from the Surdna Foundation to continue the reporting project with a series of explanatory/investigative stories about poverty, power and public policy. The first piece will be published in January 2019.
Fifty years ago today, on April 16, the sanitation strike was settled. It seems fitting for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism to sunset today, too.
MLK50: Justice Through Journalism was intended to be a 12-month project with a simple but ambitious goal: Disrupt the status quo.
More than 200 stories, 5,630-plus tweets and hundreds of Facebook posts later, I feel sure of this: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be proud of what my team accomplished.
We steered the public conversation toward jobs and wages, the issues that brought King to Memphis in 1968 to support striking black sanitation workers. We did not shy away from posing the uncomfortable questions — about inherited wealth, poverty and who profits from it.
Those who profit from the status quo hated to see us coming — and are probably glad to see us go (although our departure is likely temporary. More about that below.) Those who knew the system was rigged against workers but couldn’t exactly articulate how and who was responsible — they were excited about our work.
The inspiration for each story we’ve published since April 4, 2017 can be found in King’s words.
Memphis is the poorest large metropolitan area in America. Black households earn half of what white households do, a gap that has remained constant since the federal government started keeping records in 1980.
So MLK50 asked the obvious question, one that no other local news outlet has ever asked: Do the area’s largest employers if they pay workers enough to live on? (Spoiler: Most don’t or won’t say.)
We spent the year spotlighting organizations and businesses that pay a living wage or have taken steps to do so. Those leaders, like Jay Martin, founder of Juice Plus+, explained how and why they managed to do a thing many companies reflexively insist they cannot.
The Memphis area workforce is 50 percent black, according to the latest federal data, but white people hold 88 percent of the executive and senior management jobs, while 73 percent of service workers are black. This is easily available public information, but no other local news outlet has written this story.
While we turned up the heat and the world looked toward Memphis as April 4 neared, Shelby County Schools Supt. Dorsey Hopson, must have felt it: On March 20, he announced a plan to boost the system’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, affecting about 1,200 of the school district’s 12,500 employees.
In light of The Poverty Report: Memphis Since MLK, released in February by the National Civil Rights Museum, City Councilman Edmund Ford said he now intends to seek a pay raise to $15.50 an hour for full-time, entry level city employees, according to media reports.
Economic development policy in Memphis is designed for the wealthy and well-connected, not regular folks. A luxury hotel project served as a perfect example of how businesses get tax breaks, while citizens get poverty-wage jobs.
We turned to leading thinkers for solutions: Amy Glasmeier, MIT professor and creator of the Living Wage Calculator; Duke University economist Dr. William “Sandy” Darity; and Dr. Devin Fergus, a University of Missouri-based historian and author of the newly released Land of the Fee: Hidden Costs and the Decline of the American Middle Class.
Writing, creating history
We took seriously the journalist’s charge to write the first draft of history. We wanted to center the workers, the activists, the organizers, the most marginalized, those who were vulnerable.
For the anniversary of the 2016 bridge protest, which was perhaps the largest spontaneous act of civil disobedience in the city’s history, MLK50 profiled those at the front of the movement and those who joined in. Video of those voices can be seen here.
We challenged the official narrative from city government and police, and asked better questions so we wouldn’t celebrate the wrong things.
What justice looks like
The project had an appropriate tagline: Justice Through Journalism. Some traditionalists might bristle at the suggestion that the two words should be connected. To me, it makes sense. The only kind of journalism I’ve ever been interested in is journalism that, as the old saying goes, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
Justice can take many forms, but as the project’s founding editor and publisher, I interpreted justice as paying contributors fairly. All of our freelance journalists were paid better than any other local news outlet pays freelancers. At an hourly rate, MLK50’s compensation translated to at least $15 an hour, and in many cases, far more.
Justice also looks like creating the sort of newsroom that looks like the community we served. That meant searching for and creating opportunities for women and people of color. That meant looking for people who had something to say, whether they were writers or not, helping them hone their ideas, making space to amplify their voices — and paying them for their work.
Over the course of the year, MLK50 paid 46 people — most of whom are women and people of color.
Of the contributors/vendors, 30 (65 percent) are women, 15 (33 percent) are men and one (2 percent) is gender nonbinary.
People of color made up 56 percent of our team; 23 (50 percent) are black and three (7 percent) are Hispanic. We had 20 (43 percent) white contributors.
To all of the newsroom hiring managers who say they can’t find journalists, I say they’re not trying hard enough.
Where do we go from here?
Independent journalism is hard, expensive work. I decided early on not to charge for our content. Fundraising locally proved very difficult; not surprisingly, companies that profit from the status quo were reluctant to support our work. (Oh, the stories I could tell.)
Without a $100,000 grant from the Surdna Foundation and significant financial support from the Center for Community Change, MLK50 would have just been an interesting idea I had.
When you pay your contributors fairly, the money doesn’t last as long as it might when you pay poverty wages. Our funding is done — but the stories are still there. If you were moved or otherwise edified by our work, click here to make a tax-deductible donation.
The list of investigative pieces we had yet to get to — about debt collection and nonprofit hospitals, the undue influence of the Shelby County Crime Commission on public policy, about how old cotton money shapes the Memphis we see today, just to name a few — is long.
We’re exploring ways to resurrect MLK50 as an investigative news outlet focused on the systems and structures that keep so many African-Americans in this community on the margins. Say a prayer, light a candle or cross your fingers that our plan gets the hearing and funding, we think it deserves. (See update; our wishes were answered by a significant grant from the Surdna Foundation and the continued support of the Center for Community Change.)
If we come back — when we come back — our goal will be the same: To disrupt the status quo.
After all, it was King who said: “The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.