Last week marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King gave his life fighting for racial and economic justice, yet 50 years later the living wage he called for is still out of reach for tens of millions of Americans. Forty percent of American workers earn less than $15 an hour today. For black and Latinx workers, the statistics are even worse: More than half of African American workers and nearly 60 percent of Latinx workers make less than $15 an hour.
That’s what’s behind the MLK50 Justice Through Journalism project, a year-long reporting project on economic justice in Memphis, which takes a hard look at the institutions that are keeping so many of the city’s residents in poverty.
I spoke with the project’s founder, editor, and publisher, Wendi Thomas.
Rebecca Vallas: Just to kick things off, tell me a little bit about the project and the story behind its founding.
Wendi Thomas: I guess its initial origins were out of a writing project I was doing at The Commercial Appeal when I was a Metro columnist there. I was covering the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, and I was thinking even then what we would do to mark the 50th anniversary. And so I’ve been ruminating on this for about ten years—what would it look like to honor the dreamer in Memphis? If you know anything about King’s legacy you know that that means you better reckon with jobs and wages, because that’s why King was in Memphis. It was for underpaid public employees who wanted higher wages and the right to a union. So many of those issues are so relevant still today that my team has had no shortage of stories to write and things to cover.
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RV: Why commemorate Dr. King’s legacy and the anniversary of his passing through journalism? And what does journalism have to do with justice?
WT: I think King spoke truth to power. A lot of the things he said were controversial, some of the parts we don’t remember: his opposition to the Vietnam war, his critique of capitalism … and I think good journalism also speaks truth to power, at least the kind of journalism that I’m interested in doing. And while there’s a notion that journalism is completely impartial and doesn’t take sides, I think there are some things we can take sides on. I think we can take sides and say that all children should have an education, right? That shouldn’t be a controversial political position.
Similarly, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that all workers should make enough to live on. If you work full time you should make enough to make your ends meet. To the extent that we can help eliminate the systems and structures that keep that from happening, that keep poor people poor, then there is a role for justice in journalism.
RV: Did you launch the project as its own separate entity because you didn’t feel that these stories were being told adequately in mainstream media?
WT: After I left the daily paper here in Memphis I did a fellowship at Harvard at the Nieman Foundation. That’s where I incubated this project and figured out exactly how it’s going to work. And I don’t think that you would find this kind of journalism in most mainstream news publications, because it is very critical of the status quo. Advertisers and readers aren’t used to having their perspectives and practices challenged. That’s all new for them. And I don’t think traditional mainstream news outlets would want to rile up their advertisers like that—they’re trying to keep them happy, which unfortunately has the side effect of reinforcing the status quo, which is to keep poor people poor.
RV: As part of this project, your team conducted a living wage survey of Memphis employers. What did you find in that survey?
WT: Yeah, so we took a look at the 25 largest area employers who collectively represent about 160,000 employees. And what we found was that most companies don’t want to say how much they pay their workers. So I talked to an economist about that—what can you conclude if a company doesn’t want to tell you how much they pay their workers, whether they pay a living wage? And the answer is they’re hiding something. If companies have good news to report, they’re glad to share that.
We were actually surprised to find that the City of Memphis government, Shelby County government, and Shelby County schools all do pay their workers fairly well. I mean we’re not talking $20 an hour—but we’re talking 85 percent more than $15 an hour. And the Shelby County schools have recently made a commitment to pay its workers $15 an hour, so that’s a good thing. But when you get into other employers, say private employers like FedEx, which is headquartered here and employs 30,000 people—FedEx doesn’t want to say. They answered some of our questions, but when pressed for more information about benefits and whether they use temp workers or outsource work, they sent us a statement about how much money they give to charity events. And charity isn’t justice.
RV: A lot of the stories in this project are focused on Memphis in particular, and they really put a face on the fight for a living wage. I’d love if you would tell some of the stories that your reporters have been telling through this project.
WT: Let’s see, gosh, where would I start? We’ve written a series of stories about companies that pay their workers enough to live on—unfortunately it’s not a long list of companies and they tend to be really small, maybe nonprofits or family-owned businesses—to show that it is possible, you can have these discussions within your organization. We ran a story about a woman who works at a company that she started making $15 an hour, and now she’s able to afford a home. And so these wages aren’t just so you can get your hair done or your nails done, it’s so you can have some kind of stability for you and for your family. So those stories are always fun to tell.
We did a story about hotel housekeepers, and what it’s like to work as one where you’re having to do more work with less. One of the hotel housekeepers told us that she has to bring her own cleaning supplies because they don’t supply her with those.
We even have some stories on the site in the last couple of days about how this anniversary commemoration is really not for the people who live right around the Civil Rights Museum. So if you just walk a block over from the museum, Lorraine Motel where King was killed, you walk just a block over and it’s just abject poverty, and people who feel like this commemoration is not for them. The signature event tonight is going to be $100-a-plate gala. You’d have to work 14 hours if you make minimum wage to afford a ticket. And so there’s this tension between honoring this man who came here about labor and then also respecting the labor that’s still here today.
RV: How do you think that Dr. King would want us to be commemorating his legacy and the anniversary of his passing 50 years later?
WT: Yeah, I don’t think he would give two whits about, what would be the nice way of saying it. I don’t think he would care about these galas and these celebrations and these big shindigs with lots of people pontificating. I would like to think he’d be out here in the streets with the protestors and the activists. We have about 8 protesters that were outside the jail yesterday that got arrested, dragged on the street by police, cuffed in plastic zip ties. I like to think he would be with them today were he alive. I think he would be disappointed to know that Memphis is the fourth largest metropolitan area in the nation and 52 percent of the black children here live below the poverty line. But that’s what we’ve got. And the question we need to answer is the question posed by King’s last book, which is, where do we go from here?
This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and aired as part of a complete episode on April 5. It was edited for length and clarity.