Because of its namesake, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is embedded with a sense of history.  I mean that, not just because Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a historical figure but because he believed deeply in examining history. This is a man, after all, who said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” Writer and Columbia University School of Journalism dean Jelani Cobb has written about how few people appreciate how King connects “the nation’s contemporary concerns to a genealogy of past ones.”

King knew that the past lingers, that there are consequences to our history. As journalists, it’s important when we talk about context we don’t just think about the circumstances around the moment we’re exploring but how we got to that moment. 

You can see that happen in work and labor reporter Brittany Brown’s recent story about Tennessee Constitutional Amendment 1, which will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot. Legislators want to enshrine “right-to-work” in the state constitution, although there’s been a law on the books for 75 years that says unions have to provide workers with the benefits of union membership even if they aren’t union members. 

What distinguishes Brittany’s story from others that have been written on the amendment is that she delves into the roots of the right-to-work movement. She shares its history. That look back reveals ties to segregationists and white supremacy and anti-worker unity. 

Whether that makes you support the amendment or not, it’s important to understand what the principle of right-to-work was built on and what its goal was. It doesn’t tell you what’s in a politician’s heart. But it does tell you the system they knowingly or unknowingly are working to support and what that might mean for you.

An "I Am A Man" sign on a floor
Signs in a storage area from a recent event included some that paid homage to the economic boycotts and sanitation strike movements of the 1960s. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Of course, MLK50 is not the only publication that knows the importance of history. Last week, our visual director Andrea Morales shared a terrific piece by Leanna First-Arai — a reporter we’ve worked with — published by The Margin. Through personal stories, it explores the Memphis communities poisoned by toxic waste that was buried, transported and leaked into the soil as far back as the 1930s. Much of that contamination, according to the Government Accountability Office, comes from activities by the Department of Defense. 

Today, in these communities, people have developed cancers that the government links to the toxins. Who knows what else they caused. But the story carefully, beautifully and powerfully lays out the acts and the negligence that, over time, led to these environmental justice crimes. It is a story where history can’t be ignored. 

But again, I’d argue that as journalists, we can never ignore history. And because sometimes history is hidden, we invite you to share stories of the city’s history you’ve seen and we may have missed. 

King was right; our lives are shaped and made by history. At MLK50, we’ll keep digging into Memphis’ and America’s past to tell today’s story.

Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at

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.

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