A memorial collage in honor of Middle Passage serves as a backdrop for Sheila J. Bell (left), who  took over the flag bearer role. Also pictured, the older Journey for Justice marcher, Ruth Zalph, presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, and NAACP CEO and president, Cornell Brooks. (Jazelle Hunt/NNPA News Service)
A memorial collage in honor of Middle Passage serves as a backdrop for Sheila J. Bell (left), who took over the flag bearer role. Also pictured, the older Journey for Justice marcher Ruth Zalph, presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, and NAACP CEO and president Cornell Brooks. (Jazelle Hunt/NNPA News Service)

By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – At the end of July, a man named Middle Passage boarded a bus from his home in La Jara, Colorado 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.

He did just that. But on September 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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

The remainder of the Journey for Justice March and associated activities were full of Middle Passage tributes. The day after his death, Brooks called for a moment of silence before beginning the march, with Sheila Bell carrying his flag and wearing his brother’s hat. Frierson and White made and carried a large collage bearing thoughts and signatures from his Wrecking Crew. As the processional crossed the Arlington Bridge into Washington, chants of “M.P., we love you!” and “Middle Passage!” resounded. On the first evening in Washington, the youth marchers learned more about Passage through a presentation over dinner.

“Middle Passage stayed with us – we had the whole group. It was a wonderful three days,” said Jane McNeil of Grace Baptist Church in Richmond, Va., which hosted the marchers last week. She and her husband Sam created a banner in his memory and joined the remainder of the march.

“Everybody was praying, and reading Scripture, and singing, and then Cornell Brooks called us all together and he announced that he had passed. It was a very somber evening. But we all said we’ll go on.”

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 August 1, and culminated on September 16 with a day of meetings with Congressional representatives on Capitol Hill.

At the Lincoln Memorial conclusion, 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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