At MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, we believe deeply in the power of the press. We know that we can question leadership, expose their misdoings, shame their actions. 

But we also know that the words we write go further and hit harder when they get activated by —and activate — the community.

Hopefully, you’ve been following our housing and development reporter Jacob Steimer’s coverage of the Emergency Rental Assistance program, which locally has helped more than 19,000 families stay in their homes since March 2021 . I wrote last week about his story revealing that the city and county had stopped applying for funds for the program, thus ending it.

That decision was interesting to some members of the City Council, who wanted an explanation. Last Tuesday, when Ashley Cash, director for the Division of Housing and Community Development for the City of Memphis, went before the council, it seemed there’d been a reversal. Cash said the program would be relaunched next year. The program has covered back rent and overdue utility bills, so the change is a significant win for families. 

This site exists to tell these kinds of stories so Memphis leaders can be held accountable, and so I was gratified to hear from community members who told me that they’d read and shared Jacob’s initial story about the ERA program. As Jacob reported, Shelby County Assessor of Property CAO Javier Bailey said on Facebook, after reading our story, that he was working with Assessor Melvin Burgess to get the city and county to reconsider their decision. 

A group of people sit in folding chairs during a meting. A television plays at the front of the room.
A town hall meeting on Thursday night centered on the future of utility cost in the wake of MLGW-TVA changes. Photo by Brittany Brown for MLK50

Two days after the city council meeting, labor and work reporter Brittany Brown tweeted about a town hall discussion exploring the pending MLGW-TVA contract decision and what it might mean for Memphians. As she shared in her thread, TVA sells electricity to MLGW, which apparently pays twice as much for electricity, making Memphians pay a lot for power. Now MLGW is considering a 20-year self-renewing contract with TVA, essentially making it, some say, a forever arrangement. The MLGW board votes Nov. 16 on its contract decision, but the city council has the final say. 

At the town hall, Dr. L. Lasimba M. Gray Jr., pastor of New Sardis Baptist Church, put out a clarion call to those in attendance to “call 10 people, your neighbors, tell them to show up to city council meetings. Let’s mobilize.”

Both Jacob and Brittany’s experiences showcase the power of pushback. 

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King elegantly describes what comes from pushback: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.… I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

Pushback doesn’t always lead to immediate change; the tension Dr. King talked about might come after a long, slow grind. It often demands that a community understandably dog tired be tireless. 

We understand, though, that if we’re steadfast in our role as a community-minded digital site, our work can make the weight of the work of that community a little lighter. If we do our job well, we can give you the context and information needed to push back.   

Because as much as we believe deeply in our power, we believe more deeply in yours.

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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