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Seahawks 2023 Truth & Purpose Tour: Retracing Steps To Move Forward
A journal of the bye week excursion Seahawks employees took through the South, a week-long learning experience focused on the plight of people of color in America.
By Maliik Obee Dec 15, 2023

Continuing the tradition in a new way, the Seahawks joined forces with the Institute of Common Power for the 2023 Truth and Purpose Tour during this year's bye week.

The Seahawks’ 2022 Pilgrimage to the South was an eye-opening experience for everyone taking part, from the busload of community activists and educators to Seahawks Legend Cliff Avril. Each stop on the tour provided a front seat to the disparities and injustices faced by people of color across the South through history.

The 2023 Truth and Purpose Tour was conducted by a completely different entity, providing a different approach to raising awareness to Black History in America while creating an environment to inspire groupthink to change the future. This is the story of a life-changing week in the South:

Months before members of the Seahawks staff set out for Atlanta for the start of the journey, the groundwork was being laid to find a group within a franchise that has committed to making change. My introduction to the group came via a Zoom call conducted by Common Power to formally get acquainted and provide context for the journey ahead. Individuals of all backgrounds passionately explained their reasoning for wanting to learn about Black history. It felt good to hear so many people of different cultures and creeds explain their purpose for facing ugly truths to find commonality and help create a better future.

The conversation would be revisited the first night of the trip upon arrival in Atlanta. The Seahawks group, led by VP of diversity, equity and inclusion Karen Wilkins-Mickey joined to break bread at Red Eye Southern Kitchen, a Southern cuisine restaurant nestled in the Hilton Atlanta Airport Hotel. We shared appetizers like smoked chicken egg rolls and fried green tomatoes while each person took turns elaborating on what they wanted to get from the trip. The willingness to be vulnerable about past experiences, or lack thereof, immediately removed the tension of speaking from the heart. Seahawks marketing coordinator Alexa Coyle discussed the contrast of diversity during her upbringing in Montana compared to the Pacific Northwest. Vice president of human resources Sarita Carter joined the journey with her husband Bryan, as they looked to use the journey to trace back to their Louisiana roots to find ways to give back. Hours went by, as the group had serious conversations about race and life, a dinner that set the precedent for the coming bonding and learning that would be necessary to work through the coming days.

Day 1: Atlanta

Morning brought the beginning of the journey, a short, chartered bus ride from the College Park area to Auburn Avenue in the heart of the city. As the group found seats and got comfortable, several representatives of Common Power prepared to join. Common Power director and award-winning Author Dr. Terry Anne Scott boarded the bus with director of field work David Domke. Scott is the author of 2022’s Lynching and Leisure: Race and the Transformation of Mob Violence in Texas and an associate professor at Hood College in Maryland. Domke is a longtime journalist and professor in the department of communication at the University of Washington. Executive director Charles Douglas III transitioned from changing diversity at Starbucks to serving as a beacon for change through Common Power. Civil rights activist and foot soldier Charles Mauldin rounded out the group, serving as a living testament to the forthcoming journey. Scott provided context on the day's events, explaining the purpose of beginning in Atlanta.

"Why Atlanta?" said Scott. "There's no more important state for politics than Georgia. It's the only state in America where one state isn't touching another that voted the same. We believe what has happened in Georgia is vital to where America is going."

In 2020, rapper T.I. referred to "America’s Blackest City" as "Wakanda," referencing the thriving African metropolis featured in Marvel's _Black Panther _series. The blue-voting city is not only surrounded by counties, but states in each direction that vote red. With the first stop of the day at the Sweet Auburn Market before a walking tour leading to Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, the group would come to learn several ways history was changed within a one-mile radius.

The first stop of the walking tour was at Georgia State University, as Domke and Scott provided the background to how the once-segregated institution has become predominantly Black. Three women; Barbara Pace Hunt, Myra Payne Elliot and Iris Mae Welch would enlist the help of the National Association of Advancement for Colored People (NAACP) to sue the university in 1956 for exclusion.

More than five decades later, African Americans make up 39 percent of undergraduate enrollment. The Common Power group's chemistry and ability to blend their varying experiences as a mixed racial group in order to narrate Black history and make it digestible for all shined early. While Domke and Scott took turns sharing historical facts and pointing out landmarks of history, Mauldin provided context to each event, retracing his steps through the civil rights movement. Douglas closed the discussions after observation, adding thoughtful anecdotes for dealing with the wave of information. The group would quickly come to realize that the meticulous planning of the tour was detailed down to the steps taken, following the footsteps of Civil Rights Leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Ralph Abernathy. The group continued to the historical Ebenezer Baptist Church, the worship home of Pastor Martin Luther King Sr., who would later be joined on the pulpit by his son. U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock has served as senior pastor since 2005, just the fifth pastor to serve since the church's inception in 1886. Atlanta Ranger Marty Smith broke down the church's history and further restoration plans in place by the city.

The group was then met by Emmy Award-winning Poet Laureate and community activist Hank Stewart and Stewart Foundation co-creator Gwen Mason. The Stewart Foundation pours dollars into the youth of Atlanta, while simultaneously educating and registering adults for voting.

Stewart encouraged the group to make the most of the tour by finding ways to help change their communities, before reciting his acclaimed “I Accept” poem.

"It's our time," said Stewart. "It's our turn, but if we don't do it - it's our fault."

After taking time to explore the museums dedicated to Dr. King, the group boarded the bus to cross state lines. The tour's driver, Sam, smoothly made the hour-plus drive down I-20 from the bustling city to the small town of Anniston, Alabama for the tour's next stop.

The group of mostly-Seattle residents made a pit stop for a cup of coffee to perk up the sleepy group for the coming lesson. Nearby, the group would congregate on a desolate block, as cars slowly crept by to observe.

Domke, Scott, Douglas and Mauldin set the stage, explaining the significance of the Greyhound bus station protest and attack that took place in the city on May 14, 1961. A bus of freedom riders were surrounded and had their tires slashed in the very spot where the tour group met, later escaping just six miles outside of the city due to tire deflation. The bus was burned and the group attacked upon fleeing, before intervention. As the sun went down and the evening's breeze began to make its presence felt, the group made the six-mile trek to the marker where the bus was burned, as a confederate flag flew from a home just across the intersection. Domke and Scott bridged the connection between using the confederate flag as an intimidation tactic for visitors to the marker.

After picking up some Mexican food from a local business along the way, the tour continued southwest to the city of Montgomery, Mauldin's hometown. Throughout the day, Mauldin engaged with the group, as they took turns firing off questions about his journey through the civil rights movement. He willingly shared experiences both good and bad throughout his life, finding a way to remain positive through the most horrific stories. But Mauldin's ability to share the events of his life without being re-traumatized was tested when the group veered off track on the way to Montgomery. As the GPS directions being used for navigation took the bus briefly off the well-lit path of the main highway, an alert Mauldin forewarned Domke about the dark roads of Alabama, as bus driver Sam quickly turned the vehicle around. After finding a better and more well-lit route, Mauldin exhaled excitedly as the bus began on a route he was more familiar with.

To decompress and loosen the tension, Scott and Domke split the bus up into groups, leading a history-based trivia game that quickly turned competitive. The two-hour drive went by in a flash, as the group shared information and laughs while testing their memory on the Black history lessons of Atlanta and Alabama.

The city of Montgomery began to come alive as the bus pulled up to the Springhill Suites downtown. Swarms of Alabama State University apparel could be seen, as patrons prepared for the Historically Black College's homecoming that Saturday. But the group checked into the hotel, heading to their rooms in preparation for an early start to the day.

Day 2: Montgomery

The group gathered in the hotel's lobby for breakfast, joined by other guests in the hotel. A large group of Black women and graduates of Alabama State sported Delta Dear's shirts commemorating their joining the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority more than four decades ago. Following the meal and hearing stories about the school from the women, Scott and Domke led the group to Commerce Street, a historical block where enslaved people were brought in on ships at the Riverfront and marched down Commerce to be sold. Last year, the Pilgrimage group learned the troubling history of enchained enslaved people walking the ramp from the riverfront to be separated from their families. But now, the riverfront is remembered in a different way. The site of the roped-off Harriott II riverboat caused the group to begin to cheer, posing for selfies and group photos.

In August, a fight now dubbed the “Montgomery Brawl” between two boating groups (featuring chairs) became a victory against racism for some. Harriott Captain Damien Pickett was attacked by a group of white boaters after repeatedly asking them to move from the riverboat's usual docking spot. While Pickett fought off the swarming group, his fellow employees and Black visitors to the riverfront began to come to his defense.

The Common Power team led the group from the riverfront up Commerce, making stops to explain the work done to both preserve and inform of the racial history in the area as it continues to undergo changes. Various markers of history tell the story of the historic block, including warehouses used in the slave trade that have now become businesses and restaurants. The group continued to the marker for civil rights leader Rosa Parks, who was arrested in 1956 for refusing to give up her seat to move to the colored section. Scott informed the group of the story of 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her seat a year earlier on a Montgomery bus, and why being pregnant and her dark skin color played into her not having the same notoriety for her heroics as Parks.

The layered context of why certain events during the civil rights movement happened and the strategy behind the response from Black Americans helped provide more understanding than what you'd see in your ordinary textbook. The walking tour continued up to the Montgomery Capital, overlooking Commerce Street. The Capital grounds are home to several markers that don't highlight Black history in a positive way, but rather glorify individuals who've done further harm for the greater good of a segregated society.

James Marion Sims, commonly known as the “Father of Modern Gynecology,” is commemorated on the grounds. Throughout the late 1800’s Sims would develop medical tools and procedures by using enslaved Black women as test subjects. The group would learn more about Sims' horrendous acts from artist and activist Michelle Browder, creator of the More Up Campus honoring the 'Mothers of Gynecology.' Browder created a historic museum and healing garden, commemorating the lives of three of Sims' testing subjects – Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey. A former restaurant owner and longtime champion for change, Browder began to weld a special statue commemorating the pain endured by the three girls at the hands of Sims. Using scissors and bloody, tattered materials and carving up the girls' bodies for symbolism, the sculptures depict the physical and mental pain endured by the young girls at Sims' hands. Browder's devotion to create a safe space and atmosphere for young girls and women has led to many of her pupils working in the museum and living with her after coming to her doors in need of help surviving.

After learning about Browder's powerful rebuttal to the state glorifying Sims' acts, the group headed near Alabama State's campus for a soul food dinner at J.W. Beverette's. Owner and Alabama State alum Teresa Jackson prepared a full spread of chicken, catfish nuggets, macaroni and cheese, greens, cornbread and desserts, while giving the group background info on the school and area's history.

Day 3: Montgomery

The first meeting point of the day was near the hotel, as the group met at The Co-Lab Collective, where Domke and Scott led a discussion about her 'Lynching and Leisures' book before showing an accompanying documentary. Scott stars in the piece, detailing the turn from lynchings being about order and punishment, to photos of Black bodies being hung and burned becoming artwork for many and lucrative business for photographers. The day prior, Scott and Domke asked the group to circle up at the Riverfront, naming a person that they would invite on the journey. Following the documentary, participants were split into groups to discuss the reasoning for selecting that person.

After opening up to one another, Scott led a breathing exercise, before heading to the next stop down the street. In 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative opened The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. The 11,000 square-foot space combines interactive technology, historic memorabilia and narration to feature exhibits that trace a path from slavery to modern day. No cameras are allowed to record on the grounds, giving patrons an opportunity to focus on what's before them. The group was given several hours to explore the museum, as a packed crowd of visitors of all colors and creeds navigated the exhibits with their families. The group was allowed to come and go as they pleased, getting fresh air or free time to decompress from the often-tragic depictions before them.

The group gathered for lunch on the grounds, feasting on a variety of soul delights like whiting, hush puppies, sweet potatoes, collard greens and more. Following the meal, Common Power summoned the group into an oval at the adjacent Legacy Park. Each participant was given an opportunity to reflect on what they'd seen and experienced inside of the museum, as well as their thoughts on the trip thus far. Instead of becoming a moment of isolation between the different racial groups on the trip, the team bonded together. When tears began to flood as participants processed the week's events, others rushed to provide support. The group was given a chance to disperse for free time, before heading to EJI’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the nation's first memorial dedicated to Black Americans killed in racial lynchings.

The break afforded me the opportunity to decompress in my own way. I took a quick Uber ride to Alabama State, hoping to briefly take in some Black college football and clear my mind. The beautiful campus was filled with prideful current students and alum, proud of their education and institute. I walked past the childhood homes of famed musician Nat "King" Cole and Civil Rights leader Ralph Abernathy. In 2000, Cole's childhood home was moved on the school's grounds next to Abernathy's, both becoming restoration projects of the state and historical landmarks. As the game between Alabama State and fellow Black college Bethune-Cookman University ensued, I became more grateful for the sacrifices made by those before me to even be able to travel freely through a once-segregated city.

Bus driver Sam picked up the group outside of the national memorial, taking the 45-minute trip to another HBCU, Tuskegee University. After touring the campus to learn about the contributions of late Civil Rights leaders Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, the group met activist and former friend of Dr. King, Dr. Bernard Lafayette and his wife, Kate over dinner. Reunited with Mauldin from their days as frontline soldiers in the civil rights movement, the two shared countless stories of trial and triumph, over a meal of homemade lasagna and salad. Lafayette motivated the group before selling copies of his book In Peace and Freedom: My Journey in Selma (Civil Rights and the Struggle for Black Equality in the Twentieth Century).

The opportunity to get so many accounts from foot soldiers and activists throughout several areas and periods of time provided layered context to information given, or often times, left out of school textbooks, movies and documentaries. After bombarding the Lafayette's with questions around staying in love and in the fight through the rigors of trying times, the group boarded the bus back to Montgomery.

Day 4: Tuscaloosa/Selma

The Montgomery Biscuits' stadium once again served as the morning meeting place, as University of Alabama associate professor Meredith Bagley joined the group for the day's journey. With a special focus on race and sports, Bagley prepared the group to learn about how Alabama grew from a historically segregated institute to one of the biggest names in college sports, and about the work being done to change the culture. The Vermont native joined the bus for the ride to the university, leading students to the Malone Hood Tower to tell the story of integration.

The sacrifices of three African American students (Autherine Lucy, Vivian Malone and James Hood) to gain acceptance and attend the university would lay the foundation for the university's black enrollment today. Lucy became the first African American to enroll in the segregated university in 1956 due to a mistake by the school. It didn't take a week for students to attempt to kill Lucy, forcing her to escape from a campus building that is now named after her. Her near-death experiences and bravery led the way for Malone and Hood to desegregate the campus in 1964.

Bagley painted the picture of a campus divided on progress and slowly adjusting. As the group walked around the robust campus, Bagley pointed out several landmarks of progress. Archie Wade, the school's first Black tenured kinesiology professor and avid football fan, broke the faculty color barrier in 1970. Six years prior, Wade was part of a trio of Black student football fans, helping to integrate the team's stadium for the first time by enduring racial slurs to attend a game.

It's not a matter of hiding the school's history, but rather the way story is told that has been the problem for Bagley and so many others in the fight. The coded language displayed on the history markers across the campus to not offend students or visitors not ready to deal with the reality of the history of racism tell a story of irony. On the third day of her coursework, Lucy was forced to flee her classroom via a bunker, escaping by laying face-down in a police cruiser to be taken to safety in a nearby Black community. On the marker of the building now named after her, the attempted murders and visceral abuse she suffered is referred to as "tumultuous demonstrations." Bagley shed light on the work being done to create an atmosphere where Black students can not only feel comfortable as students, but valued as athletes beyond their status in their respective sport. Finding more ways to reflect and be honest about the past in order to build a better future would be a great start.

The group enjoyed a soul food lunch of pulled chicken and pork sandwiches, baked beans and banana pudding from Alabama staple Dreamland BBQ, as the bus pulled away from campus en route to Selma.

As the bus pulled through town, the effects of a tornado that ravaged many parts of Selma were on display. Homes and buildings bore roof damage, with many not being able to return to operation. Civil rights activist and foot soldier JoAnne Bland met the group at Water Avenue, one of the longest-surviving streets in the riverfront area. Bland and her sister, Linda, would be two of the original marchers to take part in three 1965 attempts to march from Selma to Montgomery in protest of racism and voting inequality. Bland joined the bus to give a tour of her hometown, painting the tale of the fight for integration from her perspective. It also served as a reunion for Mauldin with the Bland sisters, as the trio reminisced on growing up on the frontline for change in Selma.

The group stopped at Old Live Oak Cemetery, where the bodies of several Confederate States of America figures are buried. Ku Klux Klan Founder Nathan Bedford Forrest is commemorated, as is former US Vice President William R. King - the original namesake of Washington's King County. In 1986, King County councilmembers Ron Sims and Bruce Olson proposed renaming the county for Dr. King instead. It would take 19 years of legislation attempts before the change was implemented in 2005.

As the bus navigated through Selma, Bland stopped at her childhood stomping grounds - the George Washington Carver homes. The low-income apartments and neighboring Brown Chapel AME Church would serve as meeting grounds and a safe haven for the community, as they fought against injustice. The 300 selected participants in the march from Selma to Montgomery started their journey on the same church steps that Mauldin and the Bland sisters stood on more than five decades ago before Bloody Sunday. Bland took the group to her new park that, thanks to the generous donations of a representative of Nike after a visit to town, features hand-painted basketball court to several paintings along the walls encouraging youth to stay motivated while learning their history.

Bland, commonly referring to herself as a "Black Grandmother," maintains a motherly role in the community and possesses a stern-but-loving personality. After playing hopscotch and basketball with the tour participants and kids in the neighborhood, Bland led the bus to The Coffee Shoppe for dinner. Owner Jackie Smith prepared a feast of southern cooking, as the Bland sisters recounted the events of Bloody Sunday.

An emotional Linda shared the gruesome story of being beaten unconscious by police during the march as a 15-year-old girl, needing 30 stitches over her eye and in the back of her head. She reflected on the blessing of being here today to see a different reality in Selma and beyond, while being appreciative of living through some of the country's worst times. Seeing the reunion of the foot soldiers and longtime activists with Mauldin was a refreshing sight, as Linda reflected on their younger days.

The room switched from tears to laughs, as Linda recalled how cute Mauldin was as an eager teen on the frontline for change. The group boarded the bus for the last stop of the evening, returning to Water Ave to visit the Selma Times-Journal. Two years ago, Common Power purchased the property. With a revitalization project underway, the group visited the site before joining Mauldin for a night walk across the historic Edmund Pettus bridge. The brisk evening breeze whisked through the air, with sunset passing hours before. Crossing the bridge in silence, the group made the walk through history together. After a brief discussion about the importance of walking the bridge, the group boarded the bus for Montgomery. The final stop of the night came at the Viola Liuzzo Memorial, commemorating the death of a white civil rights activist and accomplice who was shot off the road by the Ku Klux Klan for transporting marchers from Montgomery to Selma following Bloody Sunday in her vehicle.

Each stop held significance and relevance, further emphasizing the brutality faced by Black Americans, as well as others from different backgrounds who felt they were being wronged.

Day 5: Atlanta

That Monday, the holiday of Columbus/Indigenous People's Day saw the closing of many businesses, including the first stop of the day, the Alabama Center for Commerce. The group circled up to discuss the impact of the week-long journey on their spirits, as they looked to process all of the information in an effort to inspire change in their workplaces and communities.

Scott, Domke and Douglas encouraged the group to use the lessons they'd taken from the tour and implement them in their daily lives without fear. But it was the testaments of the participants that signaled that the group truly got something out of the experience. Sarita and husband Bryan shed tears, reflecting on the impact of the trip and the immediate sense of urgency instilled within them to find ways to give back to their roots in Louisiana.

Bellevue High history teacher Lukas Michener shed tears several times throughout the trip, reflecting on the journey as he worked through his emotions to find ways to educate his students on historical events that he'd now experienced. The group loaded onto the bus to head to Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, as they prepared to part ways. The tour's conclusion saw the large group exchanging hugs and information, engaging in heartfelt conversations right outside the bustling airport. It served as a metaphor for the work done all week to create a family environment, breaking down barriers for conversation and brainstorming while seeing beyond the barriers of discussion between race or religion. It might not have felt good to endure a week of trauma-filled excursions, but no one was made to feel bad or isolated for wanting to learn more, even if the damage was done by someone who looked like them. As the group headed through the airport to board their flights home, they were left with the week's events to process along with the opportunity to be the change.

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The 2023 Seahawks Truth and Purpose Tour was another opportunity for me to learn about the sacrifices made before me to provide me an opportunity to succeed at life as a black man. I write this today as a member of the Seattle Seahawks organization, a direct result of the work done by those before me to integrate the world of sports. But the trip also afforded me the opportunity to further feel pride, and an appreciation for the people of the south for their resiliency to this day through trying times. The trip not only revealed the obvious signs of racism, injustice and inequality like lynchings and brutal murders, it also broke down the coy, passive-aggressive attempts at sugar-coating the country's past - like the generic historical markers across Alabama's campus that downplay the plight of students looking to integrate just over 60 years ago. I left the trip with a greater appreciation for who I am, along with my employer. The Seahawks are a predominantly Black team, with players coming from all walks of life and experiences. Having a job doing the work in educating its employees makes me feel better about the effort to not only understand me as a Black man, but the players who suit up every week for the franchise. It gives me a sense of ease knowing that I can not only be myself, but that I am accepted for my abilities and who I am as a person. Sometimes, fear of saying something offensive can quell the idea of having tough conversations around race relations, but the work done by Common Power to create an environment that forced everyone to face the issue head-on while working together to get through it created a bond between me and my co-workers that I didn't see coming. While the journey was intended to reveal the truth about the history of people that look like me, I gained a further understanding of my purpose and an appreciation for the plight endured by those before me to give me a fighting chance at success - and survival in America.

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