A crowd of people attending the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march in Memphis in 2018. MLK50
The 2018 Martin Luther King Jr. Day march down Main Street in Memphis. Photos by Andrea Morales for MLK50

How is it possible for four years to both fly by and be the longest, hardest years of my life?

I’m not sure, but I do know that what the MLK50: Justice Through Journalism team has accomplished since April 4, 2017, has exceeded my wildest imagination.

From one volunteer (me) to eight employees. From less than a $175,000 budget to one that’s over $800,000. From an idea to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination with journalism to a body of work that bears brilliant witness to movement making in Memphis.

4 years, 10 images

See key moments from the past four years, for the community and for the people we focused our lens on. 

We’ve forced institutions to change policy and raise workers’ pay. We’ve increased transparency, elevated the civic conversation around wages, rattled the status quo and of course, broken news.

And now, we are 4.

My initial plan was for MLK50 to be a one-year project that would end April 4, 2018. The headline on our first story: “The case for justice through journalism.”

“Our reporting will be fair but we have a bias: Where the status quo doesn’t benefit the majority, it must be dismantled,” I wrote.

“We won’t react to the news — we will respond to it. Putting our community in context takes time. Expect thoughtful, in-depth stories once a month — or more frequently if fundraising goes well.”

Well, we published far more frequently than that, even though fundraising was slow. (Pro tip: People who profit from the status quo aren’t going to give you money to dismantle it.)

We were lucky to have several generous individual donors, but it wasn’t until we received a sizable grant from the Surdna Foundation that I thought maybe we could continue for a little bit longer.

Our reporting will be fair but we have a bias: Where the status quo doesn’t benefit the majority, it must be dismantled.

Wendi C. Thomas, The case for justice through journalism, April 4, 2017

In the last four years, we’ve published more than 600 stories on everything from immigration reform to the power of district attorneys to environmental justice to worker safety. And most of those stories were produced by a crew of freelancers and contractors; MLK50 hired its first two employees, me and a reporter, in June. 

Along this journey, I’ve learned a lot of lessons. I’ll share just a few here.

National Civil Rights Museum president Terri Lee Freeman takes former attorney general Eric Holder on a tour of the facility in 2018.
A King photo peeks out from behind National Civil Rights Museum president Terri Lee Freeman as she leads former attorney general Eric Holder on a tour of the museum in 2018.

Lessons learned

Anyone who tells you that starting a newsroom is easy is not to be trusted. I’ve worked harder in the last four years than I did in the prior 24 years of my career

I’ve cried a lot. Tears of joy over an unexpected note of praise from a reader, a generous donation, a thank you from someone we’ve written about.

I’ve shed just as many tears of frustration and exhaustion.

In those moments, I force myself to recite the affirmations on my wall: The temptation to quit will be greatest just before you are about to succeed. Speak what you seek until you see what you’ve said. If you haven’t felt like quitting, your dreams aren’t big enough.

The saying resonates because it’s true: If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

If you want to do this work, you need a team. You will collapse without one (and honestly, you may collapse with one, but not as quickly).

I would not be here – MLK50 would not exist –  if not for the amazing people who have worked alongside me. Among those who were there at the beginning is Deborah Douglas, who served faithfully and tirelessly as managing editor; photojournalist Andrea Morales, who now serves as our visuals director; and Micaela Watts, who was one of my journalism students at the University of Memphis and is now a reporter for The Commercial Appeal.

The MLK50 squad includes managing editor Peggy McKenzie, visuals director Morales, editorial operations manager Shiraz Ahmed, digital editor Stephanie Wilson, reporter Hannah Grabenstein, reporter Carrington J. Tatum and HR/development specialist Andrea Faye Hart. Each has played a critical role in our success and I am lucky to work with them. (And we’re hiring an executive editor!)

Our generous donors, partners and funders propel this work. They enable us to pay better than average wages, offer good benefits and create the space to become the collaborative, healthy, thriving newsroom I would have wanted to work in. 

MKL50’s entire editorial staff was on-hand for the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Here, people encourage voting in November.
MKL50’s entire editorial staff was on-hand for the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Here, people encourage voting in November.

The next four years

This work is all-consuming, but I force myself to make time to dream big, bodacious dreams, dreams so big I should be ashamed to give them voice.

When I close my eyes, I can see MLK50’s newsroom.

It’s a bustle of 12 to 14 journalists, maybe more. Of course, diversity and inclusion remain a priority: Our team is majority women and people of color because we’re committed to matching Memphis.

Our office is full of natural light and we’ve managed to keep all our plants alive. The walls are full of beautiful images made by our visuals director, Andrea Morales. Interspersed among the photos are framed quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., Ida B. Wells, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison and others.

The music piped into the lobby is 90s R&B (founder’s prerogative). The office is dog friendly (also founder’s prerogative). The jar of complimentary candy includes candy corn. (You guessed it: Founder’s prerogative.) Visitors to the newsroom include community members who sit in on news meetings because transparency is important.

And when I close my eyes and see the work we’re doing, my chest bursts with pride. 

Every day, we’re still asking ourselves: What can MLK50 do that only we would do? We still center those that King would be aligned with were he still alive.

Our standards remain high and we’re continuing to “scare people who need to be scared,” a goal a contributor set at an early team retreat.

MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is a household name. (Or maybe we’ve chosen a new, less dated name – send suggestions to info@mlk50.com.)

When subscribers open our must-read newsletter, their jaws drop –  it’s just that juicy. Our community events are standing room only. We’ve figured out how to get news that matters into the hands of people who would tell you they don’t read the news.

We can draw a straight line between our journalism and a tangible, measurable difference in residents’ lives, in the form of better jobs, overhauled policies, reformed organizations, smarter laws and accountable elected officials.

And perhaps most importantly, in this not too distant future, MLK50 is led by an executive director, assisted by an executive editor, chief operating officer and development director  – none of whom are me.

I’ll be a senior reporter and occasional editor, available for consultation when needed and responsible for restocking the candy jar.

Sustainability means a lot of things in nonprofit news, but the most narrow view is spreadsheets and budgets.

The long view is a structure where good work doesn’t require inhuman sacrifice or an insane workload. Sustainability means jobs that challenge us but leave us energized, not burned out.  (The industry hasn’t solved this problem yet, despite mounting casualties, too many of whom are women and women of color.) 

All of us who close our eyes and dream for a more perfect future – for workers, immigrants, women, the LGBTQ community and anyone marginalized –  would be wise to consider the words of King, who’d spent some time thinking about the limits of incremental change.

“For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there,” King wrote. “Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”

I’m here for the revolution.

In solidarity and for our collective liberation,

Wendi C. Thomas
Founding editor and publisher

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This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

Got a story idea, a tip or feedback? Send an email to info@mlk50.com.