After our break, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism returned to publish two important stories. One was about criminal justice, the other about housing, yet the theme of accountability connects them.
On Tuesday, we published a story written by freelancer Katti Gray. The story came to us through conversations with a journalist colleague, Jeremy Young, a senior producer at Al Jazeera. We’d been exploring ways MLK50 might collaborate with Al Jazeera and during those conversations, he told us about the documentary he was working on in Knoxville.
It is about Almeer Nance, who, at 16, was sentenced to 51 years in prison and then another 25 for his participation in a robbery that led to a murder. The documentary explores Tennessee’s harsh—now unconstitutional—sentences for youths.
Of course, the history of Shelby County includes transferring more youth cases, particularly Black youth, than any other county in the state, so the documentary’s theme resonated.
A few months ago, Young reached out again and told me Almeer was getting his associate degree and asked whether we’d be interested in telling that story. Then he said he thought there was a story in the generations of women who supported Almeer.
We ended up telling both.
I’ve exchanged emails with Almeer, but Katti met him in person at the graduation, spoke to him on the phone and met his family.
“Whenever I read Almeer’s words, listen to him, I’m astonished by his smarts, wisdom, resolve and spirit,” she told me.
You’ll see in the story that Almeer takes responsibility for that dark day that led to his imprisonment. A life was lost and I don’t want to diminish that or that family’s pain. Yet, I can’t see the value in throwing Almeer away as compensation. He has so much to offer.
On the first day we exchanged emails, Almeer sent me a poem:
They say some of us are just born bad.
I disagree with their premises.
Created in the image of God I read it in Genesis. Still,
They call us Monsters, they charge us, try us, and sentence us.
They stand and judge us but they forgot what forgiveness is.
We’ve made mistakes but were merely kids.
Though those mistakes were big, do you forfeit my life for the things I did.
You’d choose to refuse me my right to live.
You’ll fly to criticize, but when I sought you for guidance you ran and hid.
Know it’s not right, but that’s the way it is.
Begged for a slice of that American pie, you told me those pies were his.
Though I was forced to help you cultivate the trees that bore the fruit you eat without me and watch me starve till you see my ribs.
You’re full of sustenance, I’m full of aroma and steam.
I call you brother, you say I’m three fifths a human being.
I picked some fruit and made a pie myself.
They caught me, hung me from a tree, and beat me to death with a Bible belt.
I guess I’ll have my pie in the sky.
Writing, he told me, has been a kind of therapy for him throughout his life. Poetry is the latest evolution. “Some, yes, I journalize. Other times I piece them together little by little in my mind and repeat them to myself until I memorize them.”
I think about the strength it takes for him to stay human and hopeful after 26 years. Two days later, we published a story Jacob Steimer has long wanted to tell. It’s about a terrible landlord who preys on low-wealth tenants. More importantly, it’s about how policy protects that terrible landlord.
“My Love are the worst apartments I’ve ever seen,” Jacob told me. “It’s hard to unsee the bowing ceilings, the mold, the shoddy repairs or the little space heater someone is depending upon for warmth.”
But here’s the thing: Jacob’s sources didn’t talk about the My Love Apartments as if they were an extreme or a worst-case example. “It was a bad one, they said, but plenty of other landlords like [Rayna] Mike get away with the same stuff.”
What I find infuriating, too, is that it’s a problem that can be fixed, observers told Jacob, with a rental registry. But politics and lobbyists won’t allow that to happen.
So landlords like Rayna Mike aren’t held accountable for their abuse. Meanwhile, Almeer has accepted his role and served 26 years in prison, without the possibility of parole, for not killing someone but being present when they were killed.
Dr. King spoke often about accountability; about the culpability of silence in the face of injustice; about “the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”
We hope on what would be King’s 94th birthday, you read these stories and are stirred to action.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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.