Trey Flowers sat in a Zoom town hall last summer, in the middle of a session about voting rights and voter registration, when the Detroit Lions defensive end began to speak. One of three NFL players on the call, he knew he wanted to share the story he heard tens of times growing up in Alabama.
Now, as part of a group put together by the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), he was going to tell the rest of the world.
Fifty-six years ago Sunday, Trey’s uncle, Johnnie Flowers, marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. So did his maternal grandmother, Delores Carter, who was pregnant at the time.
Trey’s mother, Jacqueline, said Delores came inches from being struck in the head with a billy club and was taken to jail.
When Delores was picked up at the station by family members, they went straight home — refusing to stop for gas and pulling into the driveway on fumes.
March 7, 1965, would become known as “Bloody Sunday,” a day when more than 600 people marching for civil rights were attacked by state troopers. The video of the event shocked the country and helped fuel the fight against racial injustice.
Detroit Lions defensive end Trey Flowers addresses the media with his teammates outside the Lions’ training camp practice facility in Allen Park, Mich., on Aug. 25, 2020. The players were reacting to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
Two weeks later, Flowers’ maternal grandmother, paternal grandfather and two uncles all participated in the five-day march from Selma to Montgomery to push for equal rights and the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act.
A combination of Trey’s family’s story and the killing of Black men and women by police last year, which led to nationwide protests, stirred something in him. He wanted to speak out to try to become part of the solution. Telling the story he’d heard for years from his parents and his uncle Lee has helped Trey do it, even if at first he didn’t realize how much impact it had.
“To me, it was just a story I’ve heard all my life,” Flowers said. “But when I tell it and then people are impacted by it and they are like, ‘Oh man, that’s a unique story.’ And I didn’t realize how unique it would be initially just because I heard it all my life.”
Flowers’ grandfather, Robert Flowers Sr., was a Baptist minister and preacher in Selma in February 1965 when 26-year-old activist Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot and killed by an Alabama State Police officer during a civil rights march in nearby Marion.
The community was outraged. It had been less than a year since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been enacted. James Bevel, a civil rights leader in the state, suggested a march in Selma.
Three generations of Flowers — Trey Flowers’ father, Robert Jr., with an infant Trey and Trey’s grandfather, Robert Sr. Robert Flowers Jr.
The first attempt, which Flowers’ relatives were a part of, was led by then-25-year-old John Lewis and the Rev. Hosea Williams. As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Alabama state troopers fired tear gas and beat marchers with nightsticks. Delores and Johnnie were there.
For 13-year-old Lee Flowers, listening on the radio at home that day, this was a call to action. He wanted to be among the people to try to bring change.
“I told my daddy, I got to be at the next one,” Lee said. “I said, I got to be involved the next time around. He allowed me.”
Two weeks later, with the march from Selma to Montgomery, he would receive his opportunity.
Lee Flowers passed the hours after the first day of the Selma to Montgomery march at a campground, huddled in front of a space heater to ward off the cold Alabama night. As he watched the day break, Lee walked outside the tent and wandered around.
He saw a drum with a fire — a place to warm up his hands and get a cup of coffee. As he stood there, he recalled, a door to a trailer he hadn’t noticed opened.
“Hosea,” the voice bellowed. “Where’s Hosea?”
Lee said he looked up and saw the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. looking for Williams, one of the leaders of the civil rights movement. King looked down at Lee and told the man making coffee to give Lee the first cup. Lee says it’s still the best coffee he has had in his life.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King lead a march from Selma. Front row: politician/civil rights activist John Lewis, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Ruth Harris Bunche, Nobel Prize-winning political scientist Ralph Bunche, activist Hosea Williams. William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images
Lee had seen King before. In the weeks before the Selma to Montgomery march, Lee and Johnnie spent a lot of time at Brown Chapel Church, where King would speak at one of the bases of the civil rights movement in Selma. But this was different. This was during the march, an up-close, one-on-one interaction and a surprise.
“I realized that, boy, I was out of place,” Lee said. “I got away from there and moved on up. That was one of my highlights of my night there, and that morning they had breakfast. Everything was traveling and on the move.
“I walked up the hill and had a huge breakfast an hour or so later, and it was on, man. Marching again.”
For two days, Lee and Johnnie marched through the sunshine and rain, taking breaks to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They sang songs, still etched in Lee’s memory, about freedom, marching to Montgomery and then-Gov. George Wallace.
Delores, no longer marching because of her pregnancy, found another way to participate. “She decided to be the one to carry the food and water to those that needed it, so that was her thing to be, I guess, involved but not,” said Jacqueline, Trey’s mother. “Even though it was dangerous, to the point she was out there to be hit or whatever.
“She’d often talk about sneaking food and water to them and everything. And getting through. There was just so much unrest at the time and everything was just scary.”
One of the people Trey said Delores handed water to was Viola Liuzzo, an activist who traveled to Alabama from Michigan to support the movement.
For days, through the rain, sun and nightfall, Lee marched in the same clothes without a shower. He wore a pair of work shoes and a cheap, weather-resistant dark green trench coat.
The coat, he said, helped get him through the colder parts of the five-day march.
“We really, we needed a bath, man,” Lee said. “That’s for real. It didn’t cross your mind when you’re marching. That wear and tear, it took its toll on us. It was quite an event, man. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Lee realized this when they finally reached Montgomery County. Celebrities started showing up for the last night, holding a concert dubbed “Stars for Freedom,” with performances by Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr. and Tony Bennett.
Trey Flowers, center, has taken his social activism cue from his uncle Lee, second from right. Lee Flowers
The next day, the final day, they marched to the capitol, where a rally was held, including a speech by King. By then, the crowd had increased to 25,000. To identify those who marched the whole way, organizers gave out orange vests. It allowed Lee to get toward the front for King’s speech.
Lee marched 54 miles over five days to see King speak and to stand up for something he and his entire family believed in.
“They told us we wouldn’t get here. And there were those who said that we would get here only over their dead bodies,” King said in his speech that day. “But all the world today knows that we are here and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying, ‘We ain’t goin’ let nobody turn us around.’”
When King’s speech concluded, Lee went to find his father and his brother. Before the march started, Robert Sr. told his sons where to meet him in Montgomery. They would drive back to Selma together to once again meet at Brown Chapel Church.
They were exhausted, excited and proud. Lee wore his orange vest the entire ride home, beaming at what he had done. It was only when they returned to Brown Chapel that they learned what had happened.
“We weren’t there 10 minutes,” Lee said, “before they said, ‘Take off them orange vests. Someone just got killed on Highway 80 coming back to Selma.’”
On the same route they had taken from Montgomery to Selma, the Ku Klux Klan had driven a car off the road and shot and killed a woman — Liuzzo.
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Lee took off the vest. Tucked it away. His father eventually took him home, where he showered and slept for an entire day. When he returned to school the next week, all his classmates had questions.
They had seen the news. Now they could talk to someone who was there.
“I came back to school and I had a crowd around me. ‘How was it? How was the march? I wish I had been there,’” Lee said.
“I realized then how big it was to seize that moment, and I gave my daddy credit for that, for letting us participate in such an event. He didn’t have to do that.”
When Trey finished telling his story on the Zoom call — an abridged version of what he’d heard from his mother, his father and his uncle Lee — everyone was silent. Detroit Lions safety Duron Harmon couldn’t believe what he had heard. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson had her hand to her mouth.
Benson had goose bumps. Her professional career had been centered around Selma and the march. She’d become friendly with Liuzzo’s daughters and during the session texted two of them, Mary and Sally, to tell them what she was hearing.
Alabama state troopers block the way as protesters march on a highway outside Selma on March 9, 1965. The marchers, numbering about 2,000, turned back after a federal judge banned the march. AP Photo
By the end of the call, she promised to connect — a conversation that has yet to happen between Trey and Liuzzo’s daughters.
“It was mind-blowing,” Benson said. “Also underscores the authenticity in which he comes to this. It’s ingrained in his family. He’s deeply committed to it.
“This isn’t just an example of an athlete jumping on what has become quite a movement in sports [last] year, to engage in democracy. This clearly, to him, is a deep-rooted personal issue deep within his family’s history.”
Harmon, one of Trey’s friends and teammates for years, had never heard Trey’s story until the town hall. A history lover, Harmon peppered Trey with questions after the Zoom session about every aspect of his family story along with what they’ve learned from their own conversations with politicians.
Trey answered every one. Any time there was a panel on voting rights, Trey participated.
Jacqueline said Trey came to her after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd last year and wanted to know why there was so much hatred. He asked how could he possibly explain to his oldest daughter, Skyler, 8, “that the reason some things happen to Black people is that they are Black. You don’t want to put that on a child’s mindset.”
“We just want to live in America, and they are hating us and we’ve done no harm,” Jacqueline said. “So that was getting to him. He was questioning that, so when he was saying vote … all of it is probably a combination of the wrongdoing to different Black males in America.”
In the lead-up to the 2020 election, Trey participated in multiple town halls to speak up on the importance of voting and to tell his family’s story.
The first time Trey voted, months after he turned 18, he requested and filed an absentee ballot because he was away in college at Arkansas. Not that he had a choice. His parents made it clear that voting was not optional. His family’s story ensured it.
“It was any opportunity [my father] got, he’d get on that subject and stress the importance of what it was,” Trey said. “He had so many kids, so maybe when one of the kids turned of age, I think that’s when he would say like, ‘OK, make sure you register to vote, make sure you exercise your right because your family fought hard for the right to vote.’
“When the kid turned 18, then we’ll hear that story. And we’d know.”
Robert Flowers Jr. — Trey’s dad — told his son stories all the time while working construction when Trey was a kid. The story about his family’s experiences from Selma to Montgomery was only one of them. When the marches happened, Robert Jr. was only age 5, so he couldn’t participate. But every time his father talked, Trey listened intently.
“You got to act like you was there and you got to vote,” Robert Jr. said. “People lost their lives for you to have the right to vote.”
To keep the family’s story alive and keep the tradition of learning, Trey plans to take his children and his nieces and nephews to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and to the Civil Rights Museum. Like his father, mother, uncles and grandparents before him, he wants to use the past to explain the future.
“I want them to be educated and understand how far we have come,” Trey said. “And to know what it takes to get [there and] how far we have to go.”
Lee Flowers went back to his mother’s house one day, years after the march, and looked for the piece of history he held so dear. For a decade, Lee knew where the orange vest was.
Life happened. He traveled. Went to college. One day, when he went home and asked his mom where it was, she didn’t know.
“It was just gone, man,” Lee said. “We had all the songs on it, man. It was a big deal. That vest was important to us. But it disappeared, man, due to years.”
Spurred on by a meeting with Henry Louis Gates Jr., a college friend of Detroit owner Sheila Ford Hamp, the Lions boycotted practice in protest of the Jacob Blake shooting in Wisconsin. Michael Rothstein/ESPN
Thinking about it still saddens Lee; his prized possession, a piece of his history — of America’s history — gone to the ether of time. But his family’s true legacy is in what he sees when he looks at his nephew. He watches Trey speaking up and speaking out. Like many in Trey’s life, they were at first surprised by it.
In August, when the Lions became the first team in sports to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake by canceling their practice, Harmon said Trey was one of the leaders to push them to actually protest.
Trey told his teammates there could be pushback from fans and even friends and family because of what they were planning to do.
Lions defensive end Trey Flowers is making an impact beyond the field and using his family’s story to motivate others to exercise their right to vote. Kirk Irwin/Getty Images
“I expressed that it is a sacrifice by speaking out,” Trey said. “I didn’t share the sacrifice my family took, because although it was similar, it wasn’t to the extent of theirs.”
The sacrifices his family made in Alabama by protesting had resulted in lost lives in the 1960s. What he was asking his teammates to do was potentially sacrifice their brand, something he understood was far less serious, so he didn’t want to use his family’s story to equate the two.
He was, though, one of three Lions players who spoke publicly that day during their protest. Standing up to what you believe is wrong and speaking out against it had been part of his family. Now it was part of him.
Just another part of a new vocal world Trey inhabits, even if it is out of his comfort zone.
“I felt like the challenge I stepped up to is people want to make change, and it’s like, ‘OK, now I see, now I gained knowledge, now I want to be a part of change,’ and with that they have to know the process of trying to be a part of change,” Trey said. “And one of the processes of being part of change is voting. So I think for me, it’s just a lot of people are doing a lot of different things to help change the country.
“I think my calling just naturally came as me speaking about voting because this is one factor that can create change here in the country and create change around the world.”