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.