Civil Rights Legend Returns to View Mural of Struggle for Freedom
July 3, 2013
A 29 foot high mural graces the lobby of the Sam Nunn Atlanta Federal Center (SNAFC)*. It shows young college students risking their lives and future to demonstrate against bigotry and segregation. On the eve of Independence Day, five decades later, Lonnie King and family returned to see his image, share his story and celebrate the blessing of freedom.
SNAFC opened its doors as a modern commercial office building in 1996. But the building’s story began decades before and cemented its place in the history of the movement for civil rights and social justice.
From 1924 to 1991, Rich’s Department Store was the premier shopping destination for Atlanta and much of the Southeast. The massive retail store spanned eight stories and two city blocks. Shoppers from Tennessee, the Carolinas and beyond joined locals to marvel at the grand store that rivaled any in Washington, New York or Chicago.
But the experience was not the same for all its patrons. The Jim Crow laws of the South forced African American customers to drink from separate water fountains, use separate restrooms, and eat at separate restaurants.
On October 19, 1960, Lonnie King led a group of courageous young college students who were willing to risk everything to see that practice end. Organized as the Atlanta Student Movement, they staged “sit-ins” at segregated facilities throughout the City. The goal was not easily realized. They joined with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and other organizations to demonstrate against injustice, accepting the certainty of arrest and the peril of persecution. In the end, they moved the City and the nation’s moral compass toward justice.
For Mr. King, seeing his image cast in stone tiles, at the site where this piece of history took place – provided an opportunity to reflect on our nation’s history …and his own. He walked with family along the base of the mural, stopping to view a series of smaller photographs in porcelain enamels. Later he reflected on those days and times … “I was lucky to be born in a time when we had a cause that we were willing to give up our lives for. We broke an unjust system with a nonviolent force that could not be denied.”
*the mural is entitled Sitting Down at Rich’s by Mike Mandel