In the buildup to the 2019 Super Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee partnered with the local arts organization WonderRoot to create 30 murals highlighting the city’s history in civil rights and social justice. Many of these works are still up today; several have become highly visible landmarks as you traverse the streets. But the mural that hit me the hardest came down sometime about a year ago, which breaks my heart all over again because it became a site for quiet reflection in a time of great pain. Pre-pandemic, I didn’t spend much time in Downtown Atlanta, but in March and April of 2020, with the young baby needing early morning car seat naps, we would often be found snaking through the eerily empty streets. We found a route that would eventually lead to 40 minutes of us as the lone car in a parking lot on Pryor Street, me sitting, my son napping, in the shadow of Sheila Pree Bright’s mural diptych Mothers March On.
The two photo-murals wove together the past and present, reminding us that history repeats itself. On the left side is the historic Richard Avedon photo from 1963 of Julian Bond, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), his nine-month daughter Phyllis in his arms. Then twenty-three years old, the later six-term senator looks so fresh, sincere, and intense. Avedon’s portrait happened in the middle of the street in Vine City, a group of young SNCC members standing in formation with him. They are Black and White, solemn, and smiling, calm in turbulent times. The photo is taken with a shallow depth of field; the image unfolds toward us like a wave. Bond is sharp in his details, while the figures behind him get gradually hazy. In this way, their presence could be endless. With Phyllis in such a central role, it shows that the SNCC’s unparalleled courage and the urgency of their struggle were as much about future generations as they were about their own.
Ms. Bright’s vision for her image recalled this history. So often acts of police brutality and racial violence make national and international news, and then the media cycle moves on. What we see on television are families in the height of their grief. What we seldom see is the sheer weight that the mothers, the families, the communities have to bear, the picking up the pieces after the cameras go away. For this mural Bright brough together a group of nine women to senseless acts of police violence. Tynesha Tilson (Atlanta); Wanda Johnson (Oakland, CA.); Felicia Thomas (Atlanta); Gwen Carr (New York); Monteria Robinson(Atlanta); Dalphine Robinson (Atlanta); Patricia Scott (Atlanta); Montye Benjamin(Atlanta); and Samaria Rice (Cleveland). The mothers were joined by the civil rights activist Roslyn Pope, who was the president of student government at Spelman College during the Atlanta Student Movement in the 1960s. Bright’s photo is serene, the mothers standing together in commanding symbol of determination and vulnerability. Only they know each other’s pain, and there is an intimacy to them allowing us to peek into their gathering. Up on the wall they are larger than life, meeting us with love and strength.
Our visits to the murals continued for several more months, extending past the murder of George Floyd and then just weeks later when Rayshard Brooks was killed by the police in the parking lot of an SW Atlanta Wendy’s. Day and night, thousands of demonstrators converged the city’s iconic tourist destinations, the CNN Center and the Centennial Olympic Park, less than a mile from the murals. Down there, the streets were still empty. The parking lot began to feel like a pilgrimage, a sanctuary, a place to mend broken hearts. The only you can work through history, long before you overcome anything, is through acknowledging, very honestly, the continuing story of American racial violence. What Bright created was a space for catharsis. A space to cry, a space that was irrefutable and (at the time) always present. She made a space for us to take strength from the determination and will of these mothers.