GSA Commemorates Landmark Civil Rights Protest with Plaque Unveiling
On October 19th, before an audience of 400 guests, GSA and the City of Atlanta unveiled a plaque to commemorate the courage and sacrifice of the Atlanta Student Movement in demonstrating against the injustices of segregation.
On that date 56 years before, students from Atlanta’s historically black colleges demanded to be seated at the lunch counters in Rich’s Department Store. The students-- led by Lonnie King of Morehouse College, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.-- were arrested for their activities. They set in motion months of protests that led to the eventual desegregation of retail stores, hotels, schools and other facilities throughout Atlanta and the Deep South. This historic event took place in what is now the Sam Nunn Atlanta Federal Center.
The story began two generations before the historic protest. Rich’s Department Store was founded in 1924 at the corner of Broad and Alabama Streets in downtown Atlanta. In the decades that followed, Rich’s evolved into the grandest store of its kind in the southeast. At its zenith, it was a “destination” for shoppers from throughout the region and beyond. Customers flocked to Rich’s for its clothing, housewares and high-end furnishings. A day of “retail therapy” at Rich’s would most certainly include a stop at one of its many restaurants – ranging from casual eateries to elegant dining.
For the store’s customers of color, the experience was far different. In Atlanta, the self-proclaimed “Queen City of the South” and “The City Too Busy to Hate,” African Americans went to separate restrooms, drank from separate water fountains and dined at separate lunch counters. It was the “way of things” in 1924 and remained unchallenged until 1960, when members of the Atlanta Student Movement summoned the courage of their conviction and demanded change.
Rich’s closed its flagship downtown store in 1995 and the City of Atlanta subsequently acquired the property three years later. GSA set upon the work of redeveloping the site into a new federal facility that would breathe life back into a now struggling part of downtown while preserving the building’s character and history for the next generation of Atlantans.
As a part of that effort, GSA commissioned artist Mike Mandel to create the massive thirty foot high tile mosaic mural that overlooks the atrium of the Sam Nunn Center. The mural, based on the iconic photograph of Dr. King and the student protestors, was designed to recognize the legacy of Rich’s Department Store and the role that this site played in the quest for justice and human rights.
The bronze plaque unveiled at the October 19th ceremony further amplifies that role. It stands as a historic touchstone that informs and educates all who work and visit here on the contributions of the Atlanta Student Movement to America’s quest for justice and equality.
In his remarks, Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell encouraged the audience to remember and celebrate …“those who put their lives on the line so that our children would have a future filled with dignity, hope and promise.”
GSA’s construction of the Sam Nunn Federal Center not only saved a piece of history, but also provided an opportunity to preserve the economic prosperity of an important part of downtown Atlanta.
“This plaque, this mural – they tell a story of our values… Indeed the legacy of those courageous acts endures in so many ways and continues to positively impact us more than half a century later,” said GSA Administrator Denise Turner Roth. “What was once the site of a segregated lunch counter is now home to a federal complex hosting vital government agencies, while also serving as a driver for local prosperity.”
The men and women of the Atlanta Student Movement, through their service and sacrifice, saved a nation. GSA is proud of its role in preserving that place in time, that building and the economic vitality of the community it serves for generations to come.