20221116_Black History Tour 680
Seahawks Pilgrimage To The South With Sankofa Impact & Choose180
A journal of seven days through the South – a self-reflecting pilgrimage through Black history.
By Maliik Obee Dec 15, 2022

As a graduate of Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication, you learn a cardinal rule of telling the story of others – keep yourself out of it. I was afforded the opportunity to cover the Seahawks' partnership with local non-profits Sankofa Impact and Choose 180 on a seven-day pilgrimage through the South. This week-long journey was a hands-on trip through Black history – my history. In the process of telling the stories of more than two-dozen passengers of varying races and backgrounds who are attempting to invoke change through their respective organizations, I boarded my return flight a more empowered Black man and better journalist. In that regard, I will do my best to tell the story of a journey through history and self-reflection for those seeking to further invoke change.

The Mississippi Delta

It's worth noting that the starting point for this journey is not Seattle - but the Nation's Capital. I've spent my entire life on the East Coast; born in New York, raised in Maryland (Prince George's County). A proud graduate of Morgan State University in Baltimore, my African Diaspora and Black History courses challenged my mind on what I had and hadn't learned in years prior. Neither my teachings nor unfortunate experiences of prejudice throughout my formative years could prepare me for the humbling that awaited me in Mississippi.

On November 15, the group arrived in New Orleans from Seattle for the first leg of the journey; I joined the group a day later in Mississippi, arriving in Jackson where I met my driver, Mr. Tony. On the ride from Jackson to Meridian, Tony revealed his journey from a young ex-con finding his way to eventually becoming a self-made entrepreneur. His brutal depictions of surviving racism and overcoming his past in the deep south were spoken in a triumphant tone. After decades as a cab driver post-release from prison, Tony eventually started his own business. Every so often, he flashed a smile in the rear-view mirror, as he talked about how his troubles eventually led him here, with young black men like myself being in the backseat, working for the Seahawks. A "blessing from God" in his words, sent to tell the stories of so many like himself who met their unfortunate demise for the betterment of the future. The drive seemed to end before it began, and after praying over me and making sure I was checked in to my hotel with no problem, Tony went on his way.

20221116_Black History Tour 652

The group, which arrived from New Orleans late the night before, met early at breakfast in the lobby to prepare for the day's passage through the Mississippi Delta. After checking out, it'd be time to board the chartered bus for first-hand history lessons on the Delta's tragic losses and victories through the civil rights movement to the present day.

An awkwardness settled upon the open lobby, as individuals from the two organizations along and media teams got familiar with each other. For seven days, several of the key individuals and teams providing support and invoking change for youth in the Pacific Northwest would learn, feel and navigate this painful and emotional pilgrimage through the South.

Beginning in 2014 as a class, Sankofa Impact gained status as a nonprofit organization known as Project Pilgrimage. Executive Director and Seattle native Felicia Ishino began her career in education as a career center specialist for several area schools. The University of Washington alum has led more than a dozen pilgrimages through the South to learn about civil rights history and the individuals often overlooked. Joined by community relations manager Nathan Bean, whose title minimizes his daily tasks, the duo organized the events of the pilgrimage. The pair created an itinerary with historic landmarks and symbolism for each stop on the journey, balancing the pain of relieving unfortunate events with some fun to soothe emotions.

Founded in 2011, Seattle-based Choose 180 partnered with the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office to help break the school-to-prison pipeline. The non-profit works to productively enrich local youths "by partnering with institutional leaders, connecting them with community, empowering them with choice, and teaching them the skills necessary to avoid engagement with the criminal legal system."The mixed-background staff of more than two-dozen is spearheaded by Executive Director Sean Goode. The Mount Rainier High and Highline College alum is one of the biggest voices for youth advocacy in the West, and a starch advocate for fair wages for his employees. Making national headlines for procuring for better pay, raising staffer salaries to $70,000. The self-confident Black man with the ginger beard would be the leading voice for the pilgrimage. After making small conversations with the group and the camera crews documenting the journey, Goode called for a meeting in the hotel's conference room.

Sensing the awkwardness in the room, Goode asked everyone to stand individually and introduce themselves, giving a brief background and their reasoning for being on the trip. After briefly socializing, the group grabbed their luggage to board the charter bus as our Alabama-born driver, Mr. Douglas loaded the group's belongings.

As the bus roared through the back roads of the town of Philadelphia, Goode lightened the mood of the somber morning with dad jokes – the start to every journey for the pilgrimage. As some riders opted for extra sleep, others listened diligently as Goode switched his tone, preparing the group for the incoming tidal wave of emotions as the charter drew nearer to the first destination. Bean, Sankofa's renaissance man, soothed the group with a blues playlist as he informed the group about the 1964 Philadelphia Summer murders and the day's tour host Leroy Clemons. Ishino and Bean forewarned the group about Clemons' never-ending smile, that remained across his face as he details the gruesome murders of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) members Michael Schwerner and James Chaney along with volunteer Andrew Goodman.

Clemons greeted the group with a grin, bearing nothing but a thin hoodie, as a cool breeze made several group members shiver upon exiting the bus. The lifelong Philadelphia native graciously thanked the team for their service to the youth, pointing out his sweatshirt bearing the acronym N.Y.C aka the Neshoba Youth Coalition. In addition to serving as executive director for the community organization focused on providing youth resources, the Neshoba County President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also served as Philadelphia Coalition president in 2004 when the multiracial group helped Mississippi develop the state’s first mandated civil rights curriculum for K-12 students.

"I'm a little older than what I look," said Clemons chuckling. "This city was really not a nice place at all in the '60's. I grew up here, I've seen it all. Over the next 40 years since that time, we have really transformed this city. The black/white relationship in this city is excellent. People get along, we're all at the table, we make decisions together, we work together. That's a reason why you don't have a lot of crime here, because as they say, 'Both sides of the railroad track; we work together.'"

Clemons hopped on the bus to inform the group of where he and the town was now, as the tour proceeded to Mt. Zion Baptist Church. As the group disbanded from the charter, the graves of the three freedom fighters lay outside the place of worship. On a road filled with tattered homes and abandoned storefronts, the manicured grass outside the church led the way to the shining gravesite adorned with flowers left in respect to the deceased.

A historian, Clemons discussed learning the history of his town in the eighth grade – one his own family didn't want to discuss. He told the stories of the traveling activists, canvassing black communities in search for churches that would allow them to register voters.

Clemons led the group through the streets, pointing out the lone-standing community market and the repurposed shed used as a shelter for the homeless. The remains of a once-thriving marketplace for the town's Black community is a chilling reminder of the past, as residents make due in the underserved sector of town. The tour's final stop was the site of the murders itself, where the kidnapped men were beaten, sodomized and executed. Clemons' voice boomed through the wooded area as he pointed out the long road leading to the homes of the families who committed the murders. In a town that continued to fight so hard to overcome it's past, the secluded murder scene and its neighboring acres bore a constant reminder of what happened that June day in 1964.

The Peace and Justice Museum was the next stop, as the orange sky forewarned of the coming sunset. Perception is reality, and 800 large columns suspended from the air across the museum sprawled with the names of lynching victims do well to send the message. Each state and county is accounted for with the names and years of individuals lynched throughout the South. Memorials of enchained enslaved people bearing welts, bruises and missing ligaments are scattered all over the grounds. You could hear a pin drop as guests silently read each pillar. Mr. Douglas revved up the bus, as the group boarded to head to Montgomery's Hampton Inn. The next day would bring the last stop in Alabama – Selma.

20221116_Black History Tour 650

The sound of train drivers honking their horns blared loudly down the deserted road where Bryant's Grocery formerly operated in Glendora. This particular stop brought the first visible tears from the group, as each read the marker detailing the events leading to the vicious murder of 14-year-old Emmitt Till in 1955. Visiting family from Chicago for the summer, Till allegedly whistled at 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant at the store, the wife of owner Roy Bryant. After being kidnapped from his family home, Till was beaten and shot, before being thrown in the Tallahatchie River. It was Till's unrecognizable face, and the courageous decision of his mother, Mamie, to broadcast his disfigured frame and his funeral that sparked the civil rights movement.

Ishino and Bean led the group through Graball Landing, the site where Till's body was found, recognizable only by a marker built in 2008. After forming a circle, individuals broke the silence by dedicating the journey to something or someone through symbolism. Each person took turns commemorating the moment by pouring water into a singular bottle, sharing who or what they were representing on the pilgrimage. Ishino passed out roses, as Bean led the group to where Till's body was recovered from the river. Choose 180 program manager and Seattle native Cortez Charles' sudden scream echoed through the wooded area, as he railed off his thoughts to no one in particular and everyone at the same time out of visible frustration. With tears in his eyes, Charles discussed how Till's reality hit home as a father with family in Chicago. Co-founder of the Fatherhood Accountability Movement (FAM), Cortez works in partnership with wife Deandra, leader of the Matriarch Accountability Movement to help build healthy family dynamics holistically.

20221117_MISSISSIPPI_IMG_3489

"It hurts," said Cortez. "We are still going through the same shit today. I still gotta fear for my kids every day."After being consoled by several empathic members of the team, Charles led the team in releasing the roses into the river.

As the sunset on the Delta state, the bus arrived outside of the Sumner courthouse - the site of the Till murder case. Historically preserved, the courtroom remains in the condition of 1955 when J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant were acquitted of the murder of Till in the five-day trial. An all-white jury only took 67 minutes during the last day's proceeding to find the pair not guilty. In 2007, the Emmett Till Memorial Commission renovated the courthouse and issued a formal apology to the family from the county. In 2015, the courthouse was reopened as a memorial to Till, while fully-operating.

It was particularly difficult to hold the apology from the county, with more than five decades being plenty of time to come up with something better than a one-page note.

After a long day on the road, the group settled to break bread at the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. Co-owned by Oscar-award winning actor Morgan Freeman, this restaurant serves as a blues club in the area credited with creating the sound. Patrons licked barbecue sauce off their fingers, tapping their feet to the performers on stage while indulging in a variety of Southern staples like pulled pork. Others shot pool over a beer, as the mixed crowd of whites and blacks competed with the music in their separate conversations.

After getting a first-hand look at the remains of Bryant's Grocery, I had my first conversation with Nathan Bean. Very aware of his Caucasian makeup, Bean seemingly approached the trip with a resolve that intrigued me. While it seemed that many of his fellow white counterparts were wrapped up in processing the day's sights or calculating how to discuss it with their Black peers, Bean flowed with his thoughts without hesitation of saying the wrong thing. A passing train conductor laid on his horn as he rode by staring at the mixed-race group, myself included. I wasn't sure if it was the 13 prior passages to the South, but Nathan was comfortable discussing uncomfortable topics. His facial expressions emphasized his emotions when he spoke, and he made sure to pay attention when listening to others who didn't look like him in these conversations. I hadn't experienced very many talks in my life to that point revolving around what white people could do to help Black people, because I'd hardly been in the space throughout my life to do so. I can count on two hands how many white classmates I'd had in primary school, and discussing topics as such in the workplace can be risky. This was just as much of an experience for me as them. Working for the Seahawks and projects like this helped me realize that proximity plays a big part in our mindset about others. If you aren't used to having experiences with other races, you often can only go by what you see, read or hear. Being in the space with one another is the first step in having uncomfortable conversations._

The Hampton Inn in Clarksdale served as headquarters for the night. After several workers attempted to help speed up the process of the large group checking in, everyone parted ways and called it a night, left to process their day to themselves.

Memphis Tennessee: Beale Street Blues

The group met Friday morning in the lobby, discussing the prior day's events amongst each other over continental breakfast. Assigned helpers assisted Mr. Douglas loading the luggage on the bus for the 20-minute trip to Memphis. Goode warmed the group up with witty dad jokes that received a few chuckles before informing the group of the day's events. Understanding the amount of trauma being taken in, organizers surprised the group with tickets to the Memphis Grizzlies home game against the Oklahoma City Thunder that evening.

"Blackness is not just about trauma, hurt and pain it's also about joy," Goode told the group.

First stop on the day's tour was the Ernest Withers Collection Museum and Gallery on Beale Street. The last working studio of the late Memphis-based civil rights photographer now serves as a museum for Withers' photos, totaling well over a million. Withers served as a personal photographer for late civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from 1955-66. The 7,000-foot space showcases Memphis history through black-and-white portraits. Museum curator and frontline activist Joe Calhoun gave background on the importance of the space, while highlighting his place in history as a designer of the "I Am A Man" picket signs during the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968. In addition to being able to take in the museum and purchase collectibles, the group was treated to a panel hosted by the Memphis Coalition Against Pollution. Speakers Yolanda Spinks, Frank Johnson and the Youth Justice Action Council (YJAC) broke down how racism looks geographically. The group dissected environmental racism – landfills, incinerators, and hazardous waste disposal being disproportionately placed in communities of color. And why Memphis is the "home of environmental justice." It's often said that racism is deep-rooted, but for these residents from various Black neighborhoods in the city, air pollution has been a rampant killer and deterrent of lives in the community.

Advocate Frank Johnson links the plants that he grew up around, by force, and the airborne toxins released for causing years of medical abnormalities to his family and friends. Decades of smog clogging the area throughout different areas of the city have led to nicknames, like the Smokey City section of North Memphis, taking name from the former Firestone plant smokestack.

For nearly a hundred years, there's been lack of regard for the long-term effects of exposure to the pollutants released from the various plants scattered through the city. MCAP leads the fight against pollution on many fronts, notably against the Byhalia Connection Pipeline that affected drinking water.

The YJAC is a youth-led group focused on justice reform for teens in the Memphis area. The trio of adolescents took the stage to discuss their diligent work, including developing 10 "Break the Chains" demands for the Tennessee legislature aimed towards improving juvenile reform.

The historic Stax Records Museum of American Soul music was a welcome shift in energy for many in the group, serving as the second stop of the day. Through the 1960's and '70's, South Memphis lay claim to one of America's hit factories. Not only did the label sport timeless black acts like Otis Redding, Al Green, Aretha Franklin and Isaac Hayes, but it served as one of America's first integrated studios. The group dispersed on the self-guided tour, marveling at the vibrant artifacts and history plastered throughout the large space. The story of one of America's most-pivotal musical imprints is told through various mediums in the space, adorned with a litany of memorabilia from some of the world's greatest acts. Pose for a picture next to Tina Turner's dress, or a picture of late singer Isaac Hayes' gold-plated Cadillac Eldorado – a 1972 contract renegotiation gift.

Lunch was served just a few minutes away at the historic The Four Way soul food restaurant. Opening its doors in 1946, this South Memphis restaurant has been a safe haven and meeting spot for the community for more than eight decades. Originally starting as a multi-purpose counter, barber shop and pool hall under founder Clint Cleaves, the restaurant blossomed into a hangout spot for hungry residents, starving artists at Stax, and civil rights leaders. Current managers Jerry and Patrice Bates Thompson operate the historic enclave. Jerry discussed the history with the group as they munched on fried chicken wings, greens, beans and a seafood dish coveted by a particular figure.

"Dr. King loved the catfish here," said Thompson. "He would come here to shoot pool, right where you are eating."

It was here that King took his last staunch stance against oppression, a key participant in the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike. A 1,300-man walk-out of black sanitation workers took place on February 12, sparked by the death of Echol Cole and Robert Walker on the job due to shotty equipment. After refusal to pay for wrongful death ensued by the company at hand, resulted in black workers demanding higher wages. Weeks of peaceful protests and sit-ins were futile, as encounters eventually led to the death of an African American teenager on March 28. King returned to the city on April 3 to speak to and for the masses empathetic of his cause, in his "I've been to the mountaintop" speech. A day later, King was brutally executed on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel - the tour's next stop.

The Lorraine Motel is kept up in pristine condition as a historical landmark, nestled in the heart of Memphis. This moment was a bit much for me to focus on others, even though I attempted to by taking photos for the site. I'd never been to Memphis, yet imagined I'd be in the very spot where one of the greatest men to ever live was assassinated in cold blood. Once I got myself together, I took in the faces of my peers on this journey, especially those of different races. The large crowd in attendance seemed to feed off each other, as the outburst of tears from an Asian woman separate from the group seemed to signal the waterworks around her. The most-telling sight was the large numbers of families visiting with children, using the site of King's callous murder as a teaching point.

After checking in at the Hampton Inn on Beale Street, Goode and Bean led the group on the short walk to the FedEx Forum. Accommodations were made for free tickets to the Memphis Grizzlies home game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, including passes to the pregame shoot around. Catching a basketball game featuring star Grizzlies guard Ja Morant taking on Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a breath of fresh air from the angst of the day.

AP22323128662681-2

Birmingham

As fatigue from several days on the road (and exploring Memphis the night before) set in for several passengers catching up on sleep, Sean Goode woke the bus up once again with his dad jokes. Nathan Bean and Felicia Ishino read off the day's itinerary, pairing the stops with information on black history in the town that lay ahead. This was the first day I approached several members of the pilgrimage to gauge their thoughts on the trip.

With a long ride from Memphis to Birmingham ahead, Bean and Ishino borrowed the bus's microphone from Mr. Douglas to relay updates and the itinerary. The cold wind that stuck to the windows during the drive through Alabama was a harsh contrast to the warm night before in Memphis – a metaphor for what was to come.

Bean revealed news that Mr. Douglas' stepfather Ulysses had fallen sick causing several passengers to share words of empathy and prayers out loud. Acknowledging with words barely audible over the sound of the bus's engine, the tall, reserved man waved and nodded while focusing on the road. Mr. Douglas bore no signs of the apparent stress of his parent's wellbeing. He flashed a smile and showed gratitude as Goode and Bean brought snacks to the front of the bus. Ishino had fallen sick, yet remained present and available as best as she could be. Choose 180 outreach community navigator Patricia Mejia was no longer on the bus. With news of her father being sick, she'd checked out in the wee hours and headed to Tampa to see him.

To lighten the mood on the bus, Bean began a special activity. The day before, Ishino gave everyone a random name on the bus to observe for the day, to later reveal why that individual was integral. For the first time, the voices of many in the crew could be heard. Each stood from their seat as Goode passed the microphone around, affording them time to break down the person they'd been observing. It was an opportunity to see how each passenger interacted and responded to each stop. As the game was anonymous, each had an opportunity to secretly engage with their chosen person to watch. Some used it as a chance to quell preconceived notions they may have developed prior of someone of a different race, religion or sexual preference. It also opened the door for nightly discussions that took place in the remaining hotel lobbies, giving passengers a safe space to wrap their minds around what they'd experienced.

As Mr. Douglas perfectly navigated the bus through the backstreets of Birmingham, he stopped at 32nd St North. Sloss Furnaces is a national historic landmark, a pig-iron-producing blast furnace that helped catapult Birmingham into an industrial goldmine, as Sloss operated from 1882-1971. Much of the work was done on the backs of severely underpaid migrant Black workers, many of whom died or suffered great injury in the sweltering working conditions. The city of Birmingham chose Sloss for the first historical lynching marker in 2019, commemorating the lives of Jake McKenzie and Tom Redmond. Both were lynched at Brookside mines, owned by Sloss-Sheffield Iron and Steel Company, during altercations with law enforcement.

It didn't take long for the group to grow noticeably frustrated with touring the now-defunct factory in the cold. After more than 20 minutes of observing the blast furnaces throughout the restored factory, the group was led to the marker. Convict leasing, or the "borrowing" of Black prisoners for back-breaking industrial work ran rampant throughout the south post-Civil War, as former enslaved people were captured and repurposed on the toxic frontlines of places like Sloss. The group was ushered inside of the headquarters to watch a video on the chronological history. Goode challenged the tour host on how the tour was uplifting to Black people in particular, pointing out the similarities of slave labor and convict leasing and tying the previous environmental issues of Memphis to the toxic pollution that caused detriment to the surrounding areas of Sloss.

Suddenly, his all-black Seahawks fitted hat shared more symbolism of his pride and his knowledge of his history, and his willingness to see others fight for change. As stomachs started to rumble from the long morning trek, the group headed for the bus. With Sankofa's purpose of finding different landmarks throughout the South to tell the many parts of Black history, it was no fault of their own that the message of Sloss didn't match up with the intention of the trip. But it was clear that this was another example of the struggle that many were facing in overcoming events so long ago that still held ramifications.

Goode took time to reflect on his prior experience on another pilgrimage and what he hoped his team and all passengers involved would take from the mission.

"I've gone on one of these pilgrimages in the past," said Goode. "And had really a transformative experience in the way that I view our work and our call. I came back with the hunger to learn more and to grow deeper in my understanding of all the historical roots that make what it is that we do at Choose 180 necessary. And that's what I wanted for our organization. I wanted our team to be able to have boots on the ground. Walk in the footsteps of the ancestors of those we serve or their own ancestors depending on how they show up to space. And as a result, really begin to lean into the work with that understanding. Hopefully that they'll have that same hunger when they get back to be like 'Man, I thought I understood, but I had no clue, I gotta learn more.'"

20221119_BIRMINGHAM_8427_David_Gray

The Choose 180 team is a nuanced example of just how diverse the human race can be. Associate executive director Tascha Johnson rose from intern while earning her graduate degree from the University of Washington School of Social work. The Indianapolis native graduated from Portland State as an undergrad with a degree in Public Health. Her long dreadlocks hanging down to her midsection swayed with her every step as she checked on the different passengers choked up at the various spots. Community engagement manager Cemal Ford could usually be spotted with board member Mike Tayag. The two were inseparable, despite appearing on the outside to be polar opposites. Ford, a St. John's University graduate and transplant from Brooklyn is a stocky Black man in his late-30's who was rarely spotted without his New York Yankees fitted hat. From hoop dreams at Christ The King High in Queens to carving a lane helping the youth, Ford's work with the YMCA led to him taking an opportunity in San Francisco with the Y before joining Choose 180 in August.

Tayag, the organization's vice chair, is a half-white, half-Filipino man, short in stature but big in personality. The father and die-hard Seattle sports fan wore his emotions on his face, good or bad. From the disappointment of not securing a pair of Lost and Found Jordan 1s on the SNKRS app, to disgust at the Philadelphia Murders, his emotions could be read all over his face. The two bonded over their love of sneakers and hip-hop, while managing to have tough conversations together. They weren't afraid to discuss the brutality Emmett Till faced after being kidnapped. Tayag didn't lower his tone when using the word "Black" on the bus out of fear that someone would take offense to their private conversation; neither did Ford. There were Asians like office manager Esther Lee, who while not overly-engaging, shed tears throughout several key moments. When called upon, she spoke brief-but-diligently on whatever lay on her mind. There were plenty of personalities on the bus who would share their feelings as the days went along.

After a few adjustments to the schedule, Mr. Douglas parked the bus at Rickwood Field. The oldest professional baseball park in America is now a working museum, originally serving as the home of the Birmingham Barons minor league club and the Birmingham Black Barons Negro League franchise. The group learned about the former segregated park that housed baseball legends like Willie Mays and Satchel Paige. Before being let free to roam the gift shop, everyone was given gloves and a few wooden bats to play a couple innings on the historic diamond. Many shuffled taking selfies and videos, as Goode and Bean took turns pitching to anybody that wanted a swing at the plate. Laughs and smiles filled the park, as incoming nightfall signaled it was time to purchase memorabilia and head to the bus. The hour-plus ride to Montgomery was relatively quiet, as many caught up on a nap before heading to the hotel to check in for the night.

Mr. Douglas brought us to dinner at Dreamland BBQ and came inside to eat shortly after parking the bus. He sat at the table with me and two men, Tony Lew and Juan Del Rio. Tony, a young Asian and Juan, a middle-aged Hispanic man were videographers documenting the journey for Beastmode Productions. I'd gotten a chance to talk to both about their journeys from the Bay Area, and their own racial and prejudice encounters. After the Grizzlies game, we'd spoken in length about the strains between races in addressing conflicts and the steps to create the world we wanted to see. Mr. Douglas was in a particularly talkative mood – or maybe we'd just made him feel comfortable. It was good to do so with his father's condition in our minds, as he discussed a range of topics like why the "Arnold Palmer" tea he was drinking wasn't sweet enough. We laughed at our table as he detailed stories of driving major entertainers with big egos and ridiculous requests. Here we were, four people from so far apart in hue, yet common in hobbies and thoughts.

Montgomery

The breakfast plates of passengers in the hotel lobbies seemed to get thinner and pickier as the days went by. Some sought fruit and water after several days of indulging in Southern cuisine like barbecue ribs, pulled pork and peach cobbler.

Montgomery's Legacy Museum served as the first stop of the day, and arguably the best of the trip. Guests were given several hours to roam the museum dedicated to providing comprehensive history of black life in the US dating back to slavery. You'd be hard-pressed to find many museums in the country that find creative mediums and means to illustrate the long-term impacts of slavery on their descendants in America. From the beach shore exhibit bearing cut off heads of enslaved people, to the interactive video phone booths that tell the stories of Black prisoners all over - seeing is believing. Many of the families in attendance were white, pointing out different moments in history to use as teaching points to their inquisitive children. Goode relocated outside to give those who wanted a walking tour of the city the chance to join. The handful combed up Commerce Ave from the dock where slaves were brought up boats, taking the very steps that enchained Black men, women and children took hundreds of years prior before being sold. Trudging up to Court Square Fountain, a local man politely interrupted to give his tour of the spot where the late Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, after being arrested for refusing to give up her seat. Former auction houses were in plain sight, as was the Alabama State capitol building.

20221120_MONTGOMERY_8462_David_Gray

Everyone regrouped for pizza and a sit down at the EJI center with civil rights foot soldiers Grace Jackson, Valda Harris and Bob and Dorothy Zellner. Jackson and Harris grew from girls to women immersed in the fight for change. Just like Leroy Clemons in Philadelphia, the two shared stories of being defiant against segregation laws and fighting back against racism both violently and nonviolently. Harris discussed the many ways the youth learned to impose "good trouble."

"We were not scared," said Harris. "Understand that we were not scared of the police, we were not scared of the Ku Klux Klan. We were not afraid to go to jail."

Echoing each other's testaments, the two elderly black women opened the floor for the Zellner's. Often known as Bob, John Robert Zellner was the first white field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The author of The Wrong Side of Murder Creek inspired the 2020 film Son of The South, which tells the true story of Zellner's upbringing as the grandson of a Klansman who becomes a pivotal civil rights figure. Dorothy, otherwise known as "Dottie", is not only a true activist of civil rights but women's rights. A member of both the SNCC and a recruiter for the Freedom Summer Project, Dorothy has been an activist for more than 50 years alongside her husband. Bob detailed having to learn to fight growing up as a white boy with Black friends, and the struggle of sticking to the principles of SNCC. Harris sold copies of her autobiography Just a Neighbor,detailing her life growing up as a family friend of the late Dr. King in Montgomery's Centennial Hill neighborhood. Ishino led the long line waiting to purchase a book, ask a question or to take a picture with the tenured freedom fighters.

The Peace and Justice Museum was the next stop, as the orange sky forewarned of the coming sunset. The 800 large columns suspended from the air across the museum sprawled with the names of lynching victims send a powerful message. Each state and county is accounted for with the names and years of individuals lynched throughout the South. Memorials of enchained enslaved people bearing welts, bruises and missing ligaments are scattered all over the grounds. You could hear a pin drop as guests silently read each pillar. Mr. Douglas revved up the bus, as the group boarded to head to Montgomery's Hampton Inn. The next day would bring the last stop in Alabama – Selma.

Selma

Seahawks Legend and Selma native Ben Obomanu met the team at the Carneal ArtsRevive Museum with his wife and two daughters. A shining star of the city on the football field, the Auburn alum played six seasons with Seattle before retiring due to injury. Off the field, the Selma High valedictorian comes from a family embedded in Selma's civil rights movement. No one knew more about the Obomanu name than the day's host, former National Voting Rights Museum co-founder and civil rights activist Joanne Bland.

The youngest person to ever be jailed during the civil rights movement, Bland was the leader of the day's Selma tour. After receiving the full attention of the group, Bland laid down the rules, requiring a call-and-response answer to all teaching points. There was no hesitancy to call anyone out who didn't get the right answer, administering tough love. Bland's relentless approach to telling the story lied in the fact that it was in-fact her history. Boarding the bus with the group, Bland jokingly forced the white passengers to get off first at the next stop - the George Washington Carver Homes. Among the low-income dwelling sits Brown Chapel AME Church, a safe place and haven during the civil rights movement. Bland was part of the group of marchers beaten on March 7, 1965 during "Bloody Sunday," in an attempt to march to Montgomery for voting rights. Two weeks later, Bland was one of the youngest participants to complete the march to Montgomery. Pilgrimages such as Sankofa's gave Brown the chance to tell tourists and fellow freedom thinkers of the perils of yesteryear and today. As Bland continues plans to expand the Carver Homes with an inclusive park for all children to play on, she gifted every tour member with a rock from the very ground that the march started from more than 50 years ago.

Obomanu took the microphone to talk about his journey and why he commutes between Seattle and Selma to continue to invoke change in his community.

"My little girls are right here," said Obomanu. "My wife's from Seattle, and my driver's license is still Alabama. Simply because I always want to vote here. Changing my license to Washington State didn't feel right. She mentioned the three M's of Dr. King - Money, Motivation and Media, that's what Selma needs now. Our city used to be a city that had an Air Force base across the river, we used to have a candy factory, a cigar factory. The railroad, the shipping industry – that was pretty much our economy in Selma. Those things got taken away, so now this is what you see. You see the history, but the problem is economically, Selma is kind of struggling a bit. So me being a former Seahawks player, still coming home quite often, we're trying to find ways to get those three M's. My connection is, you guys leave and go back, make sure that the impact you guys felt, you share that impact with the next generation."

Obomanu led the group to the tip of the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge where Dr. King joined Selma's leaders on the March to Montgomery.

20221121_SELMA_5676_David_Gray

Walking two-by-two across the bridge as those did before for many basic human rights, cars honked and waved in support of the biracial group taking part in history. Upon crossing the bridge without the worry of the Klan or racist opposition awaiting on the other side, the group posed for pictures and took in the various historical markers. Obomanu posed for photos with several Choose 180 members, familiar from prior youth work in the streets of Seattle. The group bid farewell, boarding the bus for a three-hour ride to the last stop of the trip.

Atlanta

It was a bitter breeze traveling through Stone Mountain Park, as the group disbanded from the bus in Georgia. Seahawks Legend and Super Bowl XLVIII Champion Cliff Avril met the group outside the park's entrance, as the team prepared to meet a group of female activists dedicated to removing a confederate memorial that lay at its core. A 90-foot carving depicting confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson is a feature in one of the country's largest laser shows – as well as a major eyesore and reminder of slavery for the park's Black visitors.

Members of the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center discussed the park hiding racism and bigotry in plain sight, and the fight to get the memorial removed as marchers hiked the mountain. As the brisk night air sent shivers through the group and speakers, the team headed back to the bus for a surprise for the last night of the tour.

A roar of cheers erupted from the bus, as Bean, Ishino and Goode informed passengers that they'd be going to see Black Panther: Wakanda Forever at the iPic theater. After checking in at the Midtown Hampton Inn in Atlanta, the team set off to watch Marvel's Black superhero tale.

Instead of seeing the film for the second time, I joined my Seahawks coworkers Becca and Karen along with Tony from Beastmode and Cliff Avril for dinner. It was the first time I took time to process just how different this experience was. Despite a growing rapport developed since my last visit to Seattle with Becca Stout and Karen Wilkins-Mickey, it was an eye-opening experience to discuss racial topics with my colleagues. Karen, a Black woman and Becca, white, comfortably navigated conversations about race. Going from an outside freelancer to working for the team, it was surreal to see just how true the franchise is in progressiveness. We shared a meal and honestly discussed our feelings on the various trip checkpoints. It was refreshing to feel valued as a Black man in a workspace where I could be myself.

The last morning of the tour saw Avril join the team on the bus before heading to his sister's graduation in Florida. Accompanying the group to Atlanta's Apex Museum of African History, Avril took the mic to discuss his upbringing and journey. The son of Haitian parents, Avril shared life as a kid in Jacksonville bullied for his culture in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. The four-sport athlete out of Clay High ran from Klan trucks as a teen in his community before heading to Purdue University in Indiana. The shock of living life around people that hated his skin color but appreciated his athletic prowess set in early. Stories of racism off campus in the West Lafayette area were enough to keep Avril out of harm's way off the field.

"I hardly ever left campus," said Avril. He went on to discuss his journey of learning more about himself as a black man.

"As I take these types of trips," said Avril. "I got two little boys, and it's all about teaching the ways of the world honestly, and the history of America. Because I am a firm believer that if you don't know your history, you don't know where you're going. So once we continue to have these types of conversations, it's not about making anybody feel uncomfortable. It's more about 'You need to know what happened in the past, I need to know what happened in the past, can we come together to change the narrative.'"

The Apex tour was conducted by Kyler, a 19-year-old Georgia State student majoring in history. The compact museum stored plenty of information on the roots and ultimate destination of enslaved Africans and their descendants. Kyler shared information and videos with the group, as a visual display of a packed slave ship lay in the center of the space. Paying homage to Dr. King consumed the remainder of the day for the group, with stops at his former place of worship, Ebenezer Baptist, and the adjacent The King Center.

20221122_ATLANTA_20221122-ASHE2049

The last day of the trip was an opportunity to introduce some more key members of the trip after interviewing them to gauge their thoughts and what they could take back to Seattle. The first was Choose 180 teaching and advancement project manager Durell Green. Wearing a cross necklace and a durag over his freshly-done cornrows, Green stood out despite saying very little. When others shivered at the frigid outdoor exhibits, Green remained stoic, dressed in just a thin jacket. It was painfully obvious that this trip meant a great deal to him, speaking every now and then to proclaim his pride in his blackness or to give praise for a foot soldier for the work done that preceded him. Despite not being overzealous in creating unnecessary conversation, his peers listened when he spoke. Remaining with his core group for the majority of the trip, who were Black, could give off the perception to those of other races that they weren't welcomed. The trip is a metaphor for race relations in America, as we continue to create spaces to familiarize ourselves with the different looks of people that want to create change. Green broke down the definition of solidarity and what the pilgrimage means to him.

"Understanding that white supremacy is the enemy is solidarity," said Green. "It's not necessarily a white person, there are crappy white people, but we're not fighting against people. We're fighting concepts, ideas and philosophies. We ain't got time to be out here killing our own soldiers. And making it easy for the white supremacy."

The 38-year-old youth activist shares a story of overcoming transgressions as an inner-city youth to help the next generation of young men and women navigate life that's similar to many across the country. Now, as a focal figure for one of the Pacific Northwest's fastest-growing nonprofits, Green is getting the resources to help Seattle youth avoid his younger pitfalls.

The 38-year-old youth activist shares a story of overcoming transgressions as an inner-city youth to help the next generation of young men and women navigate life that's similar to many across the country. Now, as a focal figure for one of the Pacific Northwest's fastest-growing nonprofits, Green is getting the resources to help Seattle youth avoid his younger pitfalls.

The second interview subject was Choose 180 board member Sarah Lewontin. Just as one may miss out on the greatness of Green due to preconceived notions, the same is the case for the eldest passenger on the pilgrimage. The short, white woman that sat in the middle of the bus who was educated at one of Texas' first-integrated schools had plenty of stories on her journey to pushing for change for young Black kids – if you asked her. Even in a space created for those who were dedicated to creating change together, there was awkwardness in how to approach one another. As the group scattered throughout Atlanta's municipal market to find their lunch of choice, Lewontin discussed her experience.

"It deepened my knowledge and understanding of what went on," said Lewontin. "I feel like I'm really fortunate to learn about many of the events in this journey. It's different when you're actually there and you hear from people that have first-hand experience or context."

Lewontin discussed the difficulty of balancing being an ally and having to prove you're an ally. The same way many on the trip may not have known Green's idea of solidarity because they deemed him unapproachable, Lewontin struggled with knowing she was doing the work and realizing that some wrote her off as a racist just because she was an older white woman. Bean echoed the same sentiments at Bryant's Grocery as he talked about teaching his son about racism and right from wrong. Lewontin's parents taught her about equality at a young age despite some of her peers feeling differently as a kid. She chuckled thinking back on the wave of interracial dating that hit her integrated high school at a time when neighboring schools were still segregated.

The two conversations were great testaments to the overall notion that you can't judge a book by its cover. In this case, this group was already doing the work back at home to help kids that might not look like them. The fight to find commonality between each other and further break down doors through uncomfortable conversations was the next step. As the group got off the bus at the airport, everyone took time to reflect on the people they'd met and the pilgrimage they'd shared. Numbers were exchanged as they set off to make flights and take what they'd learn back to the drawing board. For Sankofa, pilgrimage No.14 marks another journey in the fight for progression and togetherness for a better life. For Choose 180, gaining perspective on the sacrifices of those before them and the methods used to combat injustice today would be a great aide in their efforts back in Seattle. The collective headed home to Seattle with a perspective that those reading a school textbook or navigating Wikipedia can't get. A bar-none experience providing a walk in the shoes of those before us who laid the foundation for change.

As the group started the first day at the Apex Museum, I was given a lanyard from the Choose 180 team certifying me as the team journalist. A hand-drawn credential bearing a miniature me with a camera that I wore for the duration of the trip. The last day put into perspective for me just how grateful I truly was for those before me. Here I was, a Black man given the opportunity to experience and tell the history of my people as Black Seahawks Legends like Ben Obomanu and Cliff Avril learned right alongside me. Life is all about uncomfortable situations, and being in an environment of individuals that don't look like me but want to understand my plight and help change it is an eye-opening experience. Through the week-long trip, I learned about more young Black men that were murdered for just being Black than I could count. Being in the position to tell the stories of those who didn't get the opportunity to live or experience the ability to walk in any store – better yet own their freedom, is a responsibility I'm eternally grateful for. Telling the story of a group committed to defying the odds to help those behind them was a priority, while centering the message around what could truly be if we work together. I learned something from every member of the voyage, even those who weren't mentioned. As Avril said, you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been. As painful as some of the moments may have been, walking in the literal footsteps of those who gave their lives for me to type these words is a great gift.

Seahawks Legends, staff, and local non-profits working on social justice issues embarked on a trip to the South to explore Black history over the course of a week in November of 2022.

back to top

Related Content

Advertising