5 Star Story: MLK50 - Justice Through Journalism

Published: Jun. 13, 2023 at 10:46 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - This 5 Star Story, celebrating what we love about Memphis, shines a light on a small group of journalists and change-makers in the fight against injustice and inequality.

The award-winning nonprofit newsroom known as MLK50: Justice Through Journalism challenges the status quo in a way we can all be proud.

A statue of former slave-turned-teacher and journalist Ida B. Wells stands at Church Park in downtown Memphis, steps away from the church where Wells published “The Memphis Free Speech and Headlight” newspaper, a source of inspiration some 120-plus years later.

”Ida B. Wells was run out of Memphis for exposing things that the white power structure did not want exposed,” recalled Wendi C. Thomas, and award-winning journalist, as well as Editor and Publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. “And I think a lot of the work we do also challenges the status quo. We, like Ida B. Wells, believe that things don’t have to be the way they are, that they can be different, that they can be better, and that’s what all of our work is in service of.”

A statue of Ida B. Wells in Memphis
A statue of Ida B. Wells in Memphis(Action News 5)

MLK50 launched on April 4, 2017, which was also the 50th anniversary of the assassination of another civil rights icon, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I knew that a lot of people were going to try to make this a celebration, but if you looked at the numbers of people living in poverty, wages for workers, all of the issues that brought Dr. King to town--we had not made as much progress as I think most of us would hope,” Thomas explained.

Focused on the intersection of poverty, power and public policy, MLK50 was supposed to be a 12-month project, but more than six years later it’s still going strong.

“I think a lot of it was seeing that the community responded to the content that we were producing. It seemed like there was an audience for it; they wanted it to continue,” said Thomas.

The digital news site has nine full-time employees, like former Memphis Business Journal reporter Jacob Steimer, who’s also the winner of “Report for America’s Community Leadership” award for one of his MLK50 stories.

“I hope to make things a little easier for low-income Memphis renters. And even if that’s not thousands, even if that’s just hundreds or dozens, if I can make their life a little easier and make it just that little bit easier to escape poverty,” Steimer replied when asked why he chose to join the team.

Brittany Brown joined MLK50 about a year ago after working the criminal justice beat in Mississippi for several years, including for NPR’s Southern News Hub.

“I really like the values and mission behind MLK0, being a newsroom that solely focuses on the intersection of power, poverty and policy, and really interrogating the status quo and using journalism as a tool for doing that and moving for justice in an unapologetic way and a community-centered way,” she described.

Thomas is also a firm believer in taking journalism to the community and says she finds the freedom to do so with MLK50, which sometimes means actually taking articles written and distributing them into the hands of the affected communities.

Wendi Thomas
Wendi Thomas(Action News 5)

“But I’m really proud of the trust that organizers, activists, people who are agitating for better housing, more fair criminal justice systems, the faith and the trust that they put in us. It is an honor to be able to tell these stories,” she said. “I think our founding ancestors knew that distribution of news from an unbiased impartial press was essential to democracy and we see ourselves as part of that. We are writing stories but we are also trying to keep people informed so that they can be more educated, better voters, more educated voters at the polls and more engaged in their communities and the issues that matter to them.”

As Ida B. Wells put it: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth on them.”

Her legacy continues through the mission of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.

You can read all MLK50: Justice Through Journalism news stories completely free of charge simply by clicking here.

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