The past informs the present in the work of Sheila Pree Bright, who has been photographing the Black Lives Matter movement since 2014. As an artist who draws connections between today’s young activists and their civil rights forebears, she seemed a natural choice to be among 11 socially conscious artists selected to create murals highlighting Atlanta’s past, present and future in time for the Super Bowl, when the city will be in the spotlight.
She knew she wanted to produce a photo-mural recalling the activism of the 1960s. She began her research and was captivated by a 1963 Richard Avedon photo of Julian Bond, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “He was holding his young daughter Phyllis in his arms, while young people from S.N.C.C. stood behind him,” Ms. Bright recalled. “I immediately thought of the mothers who lost their children to police brutality and other acts of racial violence, and I decided to center their story and photograph them.”
Her realization that a single event can resonate in unexpected ways led her to seek out mothers whose children have died at the hands of the police. She sought out Felicia Thomas, a mother from Atlanta whose 23-year-old son, Nicholas Thomas, was killed when police officers from Smyrna, Ga., and Cobb County tried serving an arrest warrant at the auto shop where he worked. News accounts said Nicholas tried fleeing in a customer’s car and was killed when the police said he drove at them. No charges were filed against the officer who shot him.
Ms. Bright and Ms. Thomas recognized something more than a photo shoot was needed. The two women had a shared vision to bring together a group of mothers who didn’t have a chance to tell their stories. They organized a three-day retreat, inviting about a dozen mothers from Atlanta and three other cities, including Samaria Rice, the mother of 12-year-old Tamir Rice from Cleveland; Oscar Grant’s mother, Wanda Johnson; and Eric Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr. Ms. Thomas called her friends and invited a chef to prepare meals. The women were treated to massages and given plaques to acknowledge their activism. It became a bonding experience.
“The retreat brought us together so the moms didn’t feel like they weren’t alone,” Ms. Thomas said. “It was such a spiritual moment when all of the moms were there at the photo shoot and you could feel the camaraderie, love, joy and what we stand for. We also needed a break from it all to just have fun and get to know each other. It’s so important to take care of yourself. If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of your family and you can’t think clearly and move forward in the world.”
The idea that the spotlight would be on Atlanta for the Super Bowl had inspired WonderRoot, a local arts organization, to launch its Off the Wall project along with the city’s Super Bowl Host Committee. Ms. Bright saw it as an opportunity to share her vision and concerns with a much larger audience. “I show in a lot of galleries and museums but I love to connect with the masses outside of institutions,” she said. “Most murals are usually in marginalized communities. I wanted to go to the voices of the unheard and take something I was in conflict with and make something of beauty.”
Ms. Bright photographed the women in Atlanta’s Vine City neighborhood, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mr. Bond once lived. She spread rose petals on the ground, a visual nod to “The Rose That Grew from Concrete,” a poem by Tupac Shakur. She also invited another Atlanta native, the civil rights icon Dr. Roslyn Pope, to join the mothers for the portrait. Dr. Pope and Mr. Bond had written “An Appeal for Human Rights,” the 1960 manifesto that inspired the Atlanta Student Movement’s efforts to end segregation.
Before this project, Ms. Bright had spent time listening to the stories of elders. “I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about the civil rights movement,” she said. “I also feel like we need to speak up more and through our shared communities, we can use our art as a form of activism. We all know what the problems are, but how can we move forward is the question. I want to talk about how these women are using their traumatic experience to influence policy.”
She and Ms. Thomas know the project will also put the spotlight back on an athlete — and activist — who will not be on the field, Colin Kaepernick.
“I think the NFL boycott has been one of the biggest and longest we’ve seen since the Montgomery bus boycott of the ‘60s,” Ms. Thomas said. “So many people didn’t know that Colin took a knee for our children. They thought he was taking a knee protesting the flag. Colin lost his job and his career for our families.”
Fayemi Shakur is a writer and visiting lecturer at Rutgers University-Newark.
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