TUSKEGEE, Ala.—The 27th anniversary of the historic Million Man March was observed here with a three-day celebration of life and a call for an end to murder.
Under the veil of The WOMB (War Against Murder Begins), nearly 200 family members of Tuskegee’s murder victims gathered Oct. 16 at city hall to honor their lost loved ones. Some were moved to tears as expressions on the lives of the victims were read and professional artwork was revealed reflecting the victims’ images.
“My first reaction was, wow,” said Michelle Renfroe-Fields, sister of murder victim Demetrius Renfroe. “It brought tears to my eyes. It’s more than I expected.”
Event organizer Scott Muhammad, who with wife Erica founded The WOMB, said the weekend was intended to be a balm for healing hurt families and a step toward atonement for the community.
He compared the grief families experience to the movie “The Exorcist.” In the movie, a demon speaks through a little girl. You want to strangle the demon, but you would hurt the girl, he explained to The Final Call.
“It feels like if you let go of grief you are betraying your loved one. That’s the devil talking. When you let go of the grief it gives you access to more of the special memories. This weekend, step by step, we want to begin letting go of grief. The war on murder begins with the healing of families,” he said.
Large boards draped in white with green curtains falling from the top of each welcomed families as they entered the room. Green tablecloths cloaked each table. A copy of the eight steps of atonement from the Million Man March sat at each chair.
After a Christian and Muslim prayer, the audience received drumming and the pouring of libations in honor of the ancestors.
Macon County Sheriff Andre Brunson thanked football players who attended in honor of a murdered teammate and welcomed families with a personal reflection. His college football teammate and best friend was murdered at a Tuskegee University campus party in 1991.
“His name was Maurice Andre Miller. My name is Maurice Andre Brunson. We both played linebacker. He was my roommate. He’s the reason I ran to become sheriff. There is no reason to murder anybody,” he said.
The audience swayed to the rhythms of spiritual songs sung by the Tuskegee University Golden Voices Choir led by director Dr. Wayne Anthony Barr. Applause filled the room when dozens of men stood with guest Amir Muhammad to repeat the Million Man March pledge taken by the two million men gathered on the Capitol Mall on Oct. 16, 1995.
The highlight of the evening was the unveiling of artwork reflecting the image of the loved one created by professional artists from across the country and in Africa. Accompanying each piece of art was a “Life Affirmation” about the victim intended to reframe the narrative normally portrayed in mainstream media.
“You normally get ‘so-and-so died, he was involved in nefarious activity, if you know anything call us, bye,’” said Scott Muhammad, mimicking a typical police and mainstream news account of Black murder victims.
The “Life Affirmation” is a brief biography written by students, aspiring writers, and professional journalists about the victim from interviews with family members. The writing project is part of The WOMB process, Scott Muhammad said.
“The last thing these mothers saw was a sheet being pulled back from their deceased loved one at the hospital. We want to reprogram them and replace that image with the mother lifting the veil to reveal a vibrant image of her child. That’s why it was important for the portraits to be a surprise,” he said.
In addition to the “Grand Unveiling” of the portraits, the weekend included family members planting a fruit tree in the Atonement Garden in honor of their loved one, a tour of historic Tuskegee University, a tour of the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala., where the Black experience in America from slavery to today is documented, a workshop on working through grief, and more.
At the tree planting, Johnny Muhammad chose a Carter Blue apple tree in memory of his daughter Ileana Cuevas because her favorite color was purple.
“It was the closest thing to purple,” he said. “The tree is symbolic because Ileana was very giving. She didn’t ask why somebody needed it; if she had it she gave it, just like the tree will continue to give.”
Avis Ford-Thompson, mother of Brantley Ford, planted a King David apple tree because her son “was the apple of my eye.”
“It hurts so bad,” she said through tears. “This is a good spiritual thing for all of us. We must come together and stop all this violence and hatred.”
Over months leading up to the weekend, family members gathered weekly on Zoom to uplift one another and work through the grieving process, and writers were trained on producing the Life Affirmations. One student, West Muhammad of Baltimore, was 12 years old, Scott Muhammad said.
Erica Muhammad hopes the community will become an “enlightened witness” to the trauma families are experiencing. Explaining the theory developed by psychologist Alice Miller, Mrs. Muhammad said families can recover from trauma just by having someone listen, particularly children.
“We must see murder as a public health crisis and mobilize accordingly,” she said.
Prior to becoming involved with The WOMB process, Rev. Jacquetta Parhams didn’t think about the impact murder had on extended family members and the community. Now, the self coach and founder of Whole Self Ministries views counseling with these families as “much more personal.”
“Even though they are grieving they don’t understand the process of grief, where it begins, where depression comes in. I’m there for spiritual encouragement,” she told The Final Call.
Teresa Brown, sister of Edward Reeves, aka rapper Bambino Gold, commended Scott and Erica Muhammad for their commitment.
“They carry a lot,” she said. “If you lose a family member, it’s hard anyway. But they reach out to people when their family members are murdered. They get to know their families, their stories, their kids, so they carry all these people and their weight.
“Grief is not a process that’s going to be the same for each person—they grieve in their own way, there’s no time limit to it,” she said.
(The WOMB is a program under the umbrella of Students for Educational and Economic Development (SEED). Visit them at seedincorporated.com)