When senior Christy Calcagno sat down with former sanitation worker James Riley in Memphis, Tennessee, he showed her a well-known photo of men marching with Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1968 sanitation workers strike. When he asked Calcagno who one of the men in the photo was, she didn’t have an answer. Riley smiled and told Calcagno, “That’s me. I’m in your textbooks.”
“We’ve studied that picture, and learned about that picture, and it was so powerful to look at that man face to face,” Calcagno said. “He was someone who was there in 1968, who marched with King and fought for something so big.”
Calcagno was one of 12 Ithaca College journalism students who traveled to Memphis on March 31 to April 4 to cover the commemoration of the 50–year anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
The students reported through WKNO, Memphis’ NPR affiliate, and covered events throughout the week, such as memorial services, concerts, church services and marches. Covering these events consisted of taking photos, recording video and audio, interviewing attendees and collaborating with one another to write the pieces, sophomore Kristen Mirand said. The group arrived in Memphis on March 31 and started reporting immediately, Mirand said.
“When we got there, we hit the ground running,” Mirand said. “Every day, at every hour, there were events, there was always something going on.”
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s death, there were events throughout the week, concluding with the march on April 4. Similar events took place nationwide, as encouraged by the National Civil Rights Museum, according to its official website.
The idea for this opportunity arose over a year ago, when James Rada, associate professor and chair of the Department of Journalism, brought a group of students on a similar trip to Washington D.C. to cover the presidential inauguration and the 2017 Women’s March. After the students covered those events, the department searched for similar opportunities, Rada said. Looking ahead, the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination was the next best occasion, he said. Members of the Department of Journalism then suggested names of students who they felt would handle the experience well, and the students chosen from the suggestions were invited to attend, Rada said.
The students collaborated with one another so that everyone’s best skills were utilized, senior Angela Poffenbaugh said. They were split into groups to cover the events and then decided who was the best asset for each aspect of reporting. The students covered a variety of news stories, including hard news, breaking news and feature news, Rada said. Rada said he was impressed with the work the students completed. WKNO recently sent the college’s Department of Journalism a thank-you and congratulatory message regarding the student’s work, Rada said.
“This is the kind of feedback we receive from industry professionals,” Rada said. “When our students arrive, they do not perform as student journalists. They perform as professional journalists, creating industry–level content.”
Aside from covering events, junior Kylee Roberts said, the students were given the opportunity to speak with some well–known figures, like Senator Bernie Sanders, Martin Luther King III and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.
Many of the interview opportunities were unplanned, Poffenbaugh said. She unintentionally sat next to Strickland at an event and said she had enough time to ask the mayor for a quick interview before moving on to the next event. Another group was on its way to cover a church service when a caravan of black SUVs pulled up next to them, Anthony Adornato, assistant professor in the Department of Journalism, said. Adornato then watched Poffenbaugh approach the SUVs, trying to figure out who was inside. One of the windows of the SUV rolled down, revealing Martin Luther King III and his family, Adornato said.
“A few students were literally interviewing Martin Luther King Jr.’s son through the window of his SUV,” Adornato said. “That was cool as a journalism professor, to see students actually be persistent and professional to get the story they wanted.”
Students also had the opportunity to talk to members of the younger generation, Roberts said. One of the events covered was a local school district’s art show, where elementary and middle school students were displaying their art. Roberts spoke with a fifth-grader named K’Teira Flemming, who completed a mixed–media piece inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. The fifth-grader told Roberts she was inspired by an Instagram post she had seen, which depicted a black woman fully embracing her afro, Roberts said.
“K’Teira told me she had grown up wishing she was white, as had a lot of her peers,” Roberts said. “Seeing this woman gave her hope, and brought her pride and joy in drawing her piece.”
The experience was educational for the students in both a journalistic and sociocultural aspect, Rada said. The students were given a lesson on the history of Memphis and the events that took place 50 years ago, and exposed to an exercise in democracy, which was exactly what King stood for, Rada said. Reporting on these events was a chance for students to be completely immersed in the field and work as professional journalists.
“These students received an experiential learning opportunity in what it means to be a journalist in a way that could never be simulated in a classroom,” Rada said.
Mirand said the events she witnessed affirmed the path of study that she decided to take. Witnessing the unity of such a large and diverse group of individuals gave her hope for a better future.
“There are so many people standing up and advocating right now,” Mirand said. “That’s something I’m excited to continue to see as a person and continue to cover as a journalist.”