As she prepared to come to Memphis, Brittany “Bree” Newsome read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last book, Where Do We Go From Here, and realized two things.

First: He was prophetic. Second: The way some people regard this 50th year since his assassination is “just kind of, like, false,” the activist said.

In essence, the commemoration of King’s death in his prime at age 39, which left behind a wife and four children who would carry the trauma for a lifetime, comes across as just another way black death is enshrined in the American psyche: We’re used to it, so why change anything?

I sometimes I feel like we almost have a model for what black leadership looks like, and then that story always ends in that person being assassinated, going to jail, dying and poverty,” Newsome observed during an exclusive interview with MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.

In Memphis for the first time, the North Carolina native said she felt a sense of unease of commemorating, well, death. Celebrating King’s birthday as she did in January at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, was logical and easy, much easier than this particular occasion. For the woman who pulled the Confederate flag down from a 30-foot pole at the South Carolina State House pole in 2015, no matter how you slice it, commemorating is really celebrating.

Newsome’s insight is compelling, when the racism that used to hide behind Jim Crow laws of the South, now shows up as white nationalists wearing khakis, polo shirts and carrying Tiki torches, as Terri Freeman, head of the National Civil Rights Museum eloquently illustrated at the MLK50 commemorative capstone, An Evening of Storytelling. Held April 4 in a sleek, cavernous hall at the multilevel Crosstown Concourse, a diverse crowd of about 1,200 people came to hear veteran and relatively new civil rights leaders share tales of the struggle.

The day before, Newsome sat down at a Downtown hotel restaurant to talk about the surreal nature of being in Memphis for an occasion such as this. Sitting next to her fiance, Marcus Bass, campaign director for Democracy North Carolina, Newsome processed complicated feelings, while eating a softly turned spinach omelet.

She came up with this: “I feel like the mainstream’s embracing of him is that they’re embracing a watered-down version.”

We agreed that King Day celebrations are a deceptively mainstream way of rendering King in the abstract, disconnected from what’s happening right now.

“I feel like sometimes, the way it’s put forward to us is that the Civil Rights Act [of 1964] was passed, the Voting Rights Act was passed. Mission accomplished,” Newsome said. “No, the mission was not accomplished. You have to confront the fact that his mission was interrupted.”

My take is she’s right about that and the surreal nature of MLK50: While the world wrapped itself in soft, gauzy memories of the quotable, more digestible version of the radical King, America reverted to form in a cycle of surprise, outrage and resignation over the March 18 death of Stephon Clark. He was 22, black and a family man, shot in the back seven times by Sacramento police. He was unarmed.

Clark joins a too-long list of folks who’ve met a similar fate. Think: Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner. Never forget Trayvon Martin, 17, shot and killed by a man altogether comfortable policing a black body. Black communities, too, desperately want police protection served without the suffocating cynicism and danger of an occupying force. Apparently, that’s a tall order when the roots of American-style policing is so closely linked to the “order” part of law and order, interpreted and practiced as black oppression.

Commemoration-cum-celebration really equals recognition. At least for King. But for workaday folks dying in our streets, initial shock rarely converts to real policy changes, especially the spot-on kind King championed, such as guaranteed income. As collective mourning for King goes, the moment did seem surreal, as if there were a national quota of one for remembrance. King was larger-than-life, but as much as many people would like, time does not erase controversy. Besides, these deaths are connected: Remember them all. Change America for them all.

The income inequality King addressed is an acute issue of our time, for example. The federal minimum wage actually peaked in 1968, losing purchasing power, according to Pew Research Center, and several states have chosen to set their own minimums. Fifty years later, the federal minimum is not connected to the cost of living, as if people can live on fantasy dollars.

And what about our daily martyrs, the Trayvons Martins and the Sandra Blands? We force people like them, people like us, to measure up to an idealized King who never was, so they never fit neatly into coffins of benediction allowed for few black American icons. Embalming these fallen everyday black Americans in sympathy while our system of government aggressively denies their right to exist assigns them a benign degree of unimportance that is the hallmark of our racist culture.

Like King, Newsome’s work today is about finding the anointing and unleashing the agency in everyday people. She’s focusing on housing justice as a community organizer in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Like King, Newsome’s work today is about finding the anointing and unleashing the agency in everyday people.

“So it’s like we’re trying to address all these issues, and if we really we can’t do that we can’t build community,” Newsome said. “What I have found is that we cannot address any of those issues if our people are being displaced. If everybody is pushed out — and part of my concern is what’s happening right now with all of this gentrification in these major urban areas — it’s like all the poverty is going to be pushed to the outside to the suburbs.”

Newsome’s entry to the movement was through Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina to protect the right to vote and fight against other regressive policies. Those actions, replicated in Memphis during the run-up to MLK50, was headed up by the Rev. William Barber, who has rebooted King’s Poor People’s Campaign. She’s also working on building sustainable local organizations so marginalized communities can get in front of the issues.

Newsome said modern human rights movements can do more.

“We’re very good at reacting to things,” Newsome said. “Police beat somebody; we react. A store discriminates against somebody; we’re sure to boycott. But how do we organize to keep these things from happening in the first place? How do we organize ourselves to be empowered in a sustainable way?”

Bree Newsome in the audience at the MLK50 Evening of Storytelling event at Crosstown Concourse on April 4, 1968. Photo by Natalie Eddings.

Beyond voting, citizens can do a better job of participating in the democratic process, she said. Getting neighbors to attend something as simple as a municipal zoning committee meeting is one way to help citizens understand how money and power operates in tiny, unattended corners, cloaked in boring details with massive consequences.

One example is being proactive about participating in civic decisions on the front end of the process is in affordable housing development, Newsome said: “So, like, the city has committed to build affordable housing, but that’s not addressing the issue of the housing that we’re losing. They’ll say ‘OK, we’re building 200 affordable housing units,’ but meanwhile we’re losing 30 over here, and 40 over there.”

Referring to the Charlotte Housing Trust Fund, Newsome said agreements with developers to set aside a percentage of affordable units doesn’t come close to replacing homes razed to make room for luxury developments.

In Charlotte, Newsome engages with a loose group of about 25 residents committed to keeping track of these kinds of patterns in civic decision-making, she said. Amping up local engagement should and can happen anywhere.

In reorienting the 50th commemoration toward the regular people who make movements, whether it’s in education, policing, voting rights or beyond, the Rev. James Lawson, a featured storyteller, underscored the importance of intent:

“If you want social change,” Lawson said, “you have to be and do the things that produce social change. If you want justice, you must become just people. If you want freedom and access, then your movement must not reflect the enemies of human life” but equality and dignity.

King’s vision was grounded in an awareness of the interconnectedness of America to the world and Americans to one another, be they whites from Appalachia, Mexican-American farmers out West, or destitute black Mississippians and striking sanitation workers in Memphis. His big, scary radical dream of sharing resources and opportunity was grounded in love.

Earlier on April 4, standing outside Room 306 on the balcony where King fell, the museum’s Freeman admonished the crowd: “The only thing this is about is Dr. King.”

But is it?

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.