NAACP ends march with thoughts of Middle Passage

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A dedicated veteran who adopted the name in memory of enslaved Africans died of a heart attack during the Journey for Justice trip from Selma to Washington.

BY JAZELLE HUNT
NNPA NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON – At the end of July, a man named Middle Passage boarded a bus from his home in La Jara, Colo., to travel more than 1,300 miles to Alabama. After 20 hours, the Vietnam and Korean War Navy veteran arrived in Selma with the goal of walking the full distance of the NAACP’s Journey for Justice March to Washington, D.C., despite five open-heart surgeries and being 68 years old.

Sam (left) and Jane (center) carry a banner they carried over the Arlington Bridge and into Washington in honor of Middle Passage. (PHOTOS BY JAZELLE HUNT/NNPA NEWS SERVICE)
Sam (left) and Jane (center) carry a banner they carried over the Arlington Bridge and into Washington in honor of Middle Passage.  (PHOTOS BY JAZELLE HUNT/NNPA NEWS SERVICE)

He did just that. But on Sept. 12, just four days before the finish, he suffered a fatal heart attack while leading the marchers through Spotslyvania County, Va.

“He showed up in Selma before the stage was even set up, before most people even arrived,” NAACP President and CEO Cornell Brooks said in an interview with the NNPA News Service. “We shaved together, ate three meals a day together. You really get to know people when you spend hundreds of miles walking, talking about your families, where you come from, what you believe, and what you’re willing to sacrifice.”

NAACP member and marcher Tee White shows a photo of her and Middle Passage.
NAACP member and marcher Tee White shows a photo of her and Middle Passage.

‘He made it 922 miles’’
In a press release, Brooks described the call to Passage’s family as the most difficult responsibility of his term. Passage had arrived with a lively voice and high spirit and asked to be the flag bearer and pacesetter, but quickly became much more to those around him.

“I was his little sister. We walked together and pushed each other. The first couple days, he was struggling and I held his hand,” said Sheila J. Bell, of Detroit, Mich. From then on, she served as his back-up flag bearer if ever he felt tired.

“Walking up the parkway [approaching D.C.], I felt peaceful. We made it. He made it 922 miles.”

When the marchers arrived in each town, Passage put his best foot forward, greeting residents and especially law enforcement officers with a hearty, “Show me some love!” and pulling them into a firm hug.

At night when the marchers settled down in donated spaces, he put together cots, and shared with his friends the extra attention and gifts he would receive from enamored hosts.

The NAACP mourns the loss of Middle Passage, 68, who died while participating in the Journey for Justice march.(J. ADAMS/NAACP)
The NAACP mourns the loss of Middle Passage, 68, who died while participating in the Journey for Justice march.
(J. ADAMS/NAACP)

Carried the Constitution
Staring off into the distance, Bell said, “The other day, after he passed, I didn’t have anyone to put my cot down, break down my cot. I left it. I didn’t even know how.”

Passage was kind, but also fired up about justice. Earlier in life, he had adopted the name Middle Passage to lift up the memory of enslaved Africans. He was particularly concerned with restoring the Voting Rights Act. A copy of the Constitution was on his person anytime he was on the road – he told everyone that he was marching to preserve it.

“As one of the leaders of the march, to have a volunteer – somebody who’s not getting paid to come here – and work just as hard as somebody who’s getting paid, was a blessing in itself. He became one of the generals,” said Jonathan McKinney, NAACP Midwest region III field organizer. Survival and discipline were two things Passage impressed upon him, and others.

“Everybody knew it was time to go when Middle lined up with the flag in the front, and they knew the day was done when Middle lined up to take a picture in front of whatever landmark. He ended up becoming the face of the march.”

‘Like a big brother’
To a core, handful of people who elected to march the entire journey, Passage was an elder-figure, brother, or friend. He dubbed a small faction of that core, about eight men in their 50s and 60s, the “Wrecking Crew.” They were among his closest buddies on the journey.

In Spotsylvania County, the day of his death brought rain. Passage rolled up his flag to protect it as the marchers continued through the downpour. It stopped after a little while, and he unfurled the flag again. He collapsed a few minutes later. They could not revive him.

To say he was beloved would be an understatement.

“We were all family – I looked up to him like a big brother,” said Tee White, an NAACP member out of Fayetteville, N.C. She was behind him the moment he fell. “As we marched, he was a trooper. You’d see people slow down on a hill, but he would speed up. I did cry. I cried because it hurt.”

Followed step by step
Genni Augustine from Prince George’s County, Md. met Passage on the first day in Selma, and sat next to him on the bus. Each morning thereafter, he asked her to look online and track how much ground they’d covered.

“He was so inviting, it felt like I had known him forever,” she said. “There’s still so much shock. He was the most important person here.”

Though he had respect and affection for just about anyone he met, it was clear that his partner, “Trish,” was the love of his life. Every evening he’d call and share the day’s events with her, no matter the time difference, and he’d put her on speakerphone so his new friends could come to know her. They also came to know about his brothers, particularly his late older brother, whose hat he wore every day for motivation.

“He impressed me as a very strong and serious brother, with a great amount of wit as well. I’d never in my life put together a cot. He said, ‘Young bro, let me show you how to do that,’” said Jesse Frierson, of Richmond, Va., NAACP member and executive director of the Virginia Alliance Against Mass Incarceration.

“Through Virginia, I followed him step by step. As he shared with me his history and background, some of the things that he has gone through in his life, I developed and still have mad respect for this brother. We can’t let him go like that. I’m not going to.”

Many tributes
The remainder of the Journey for Justice March and associated activities were full of Middle Passage tributes.

The goal of the Journey for Justice March was to bring attention to the NAACP’s accompanying policy agenda of criminal justice reform, voting rights protections, economic equality, and education reform. It began on Aug. 1, and culminated on Sept. 16 with a day of meetings with Congressional representatives on Capitol Hill.

At the Lincoln Memorial conclusion, the Rev. Theresa Dear’s opening benediction honored Passage’s impact on the march. Brooks also dedicated a significant portion of his remarks to the veteran, lifting up his name and emphasizing that he “marched for freedom, justice, and righteousness.”

With assistance from Virginia Senator Mark Warner, Passage’s flag will be flown at the Capitol before being returned to his family. Brooks and several of the marchers plan to attend his funeral in Colorado, and organize an additional memorial there. Frierson wants to start an annual 10-mile march and accompanying empowerment program for Black youth in his memory.

“Middle Passage died doing what he was passionate about. His last breath was taken giving his all for what he believed in,” said McKinney. “After fighting in two wars – he’d have night terrors from PTSD – and five open heart surgeries, he survived all of that and ended up leaving doing exactly what he wanted to do. And that’s a blessing. And it was a blessing to know him.”

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