Middle Passage and the Journey for Justice

Middle Passage and "Granny" Ruth Zalph walking along Highway 401 in North Carolina last week.

Middle Passage and “Granny” Ruth Zalph walking along Highway 401 in North Carolina last week.

I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with Middle Passage on my nine-day walk through North Carolina, just a few minutes at a time during mealtime and short breaks.

Still, it was easy to get the honor of the man. He started the Journey for Justice in Selma and walked through Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, carrying the American flag at the head of the line.

My friend, Ruth Zalph, 85, walked alongside him for most of the nine days the walk was in North Carolina at a steady 3-mile-per-hour pace. We called him MP.

I know a little about him: He was 68 and he was a man of peace. He hugged cops when he met them so they would have a loving experience with a black man and be less likely to shoot when they encountered another.

MP was a veteran of the wars in Korea and Vietnam. But instead of bitterness, MP came home with a heart filled with kindness. At the end of the day along the walk, he helped set up cots for other marchers.

Along the walk, we would hear his warnings of uneven pavement or a raised manhole, and at mealtime, we heard his laugh.

Love begets love. I thought of that when I noticed our journey was holding up traffic wherever we went, so I began waving and smiling at people we passed, and if their car windows were open, I thanked them for having patience with us. The response was overwhelmingly positive. People, who had looked peeved and impatient, smiled and waved back, often saying, “No problem!”

Middle Passage came from Colorado to join the march and he walked just about every step of it. He smiled most of the time.

Yesterday, three days from the Journey’s end, he collapsed along the road in Virginia and died.

People are calling him Moses — the Biblical prophet who led his people, but who died before they reached the Promised Land. I prefer he have his own identity: Middle Passage, the descendant of slaves, who led a loving life and led his friends along a nonviolent path to the seat of power to ask for justice.

His death comes as a shock because he seemed so healthy, greeting everyone with a hug or a chest bump. I learned of it late last night. I saw his photo on my Facebook feed with a quote: “We’ve all got to work together to preserve what we have. It’s a struggle. Freedom is not free.”

He died living his passion. I guess there’s something to be said for that. But he will be missed. The march continues into Washington, accompanied by his great and loving spirit. The struggle for justice goes on, and for many of us, his spirit will be a driving force.

A year ago, I heard civil rights great, Rev. Otis Moss Jr., and his son, Rev. Otis Moss III, preach a sermon about stairs and landings. The younger Moss recalled a long stairway leading to a cathedral in Europe. At one landing, an elderly man decided to sit and rest and await his family’s return. It was a metaphor for life, of course, as he turned to his father and said, “You can rest now, Dad. You’ve worked long and hard and you deserve it. I’ve got this.”

I could see my son, Michael, on that landing, waving me on to continue my work for health care justice. It shouldn’t be that way, the son waving the parent on, but it gave me courage to continue the work at a time I was feeling weary.

Now, Middle Passage is on that landing, enjoying a well deserved rest.

Rest in peace, Middle Passage, we’ve got this now.



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