I shared this on my book's (Rich's: A Southern Institution) Facebook page last week and thought it was appropriate to share here as well:
It is with extreme sadness that I share the news of Dr. Lonnie King Jr.s passing today. How do I sum up what someone meant to me in a Facebook post? I dont know, truthfully. Lonnie King was not only an unsung hero of the Civil Rights movement who changed national history but also a friend and mentor, a towering giant of intellectualism.
Let me put Lonnies life in perspective (sans the impact he brought as a father, husband, relative or friend): JFK would not have been the 35th president of the United States if it werent for Lonnie King. If he had not spearheaded the Atlanta student movement in 1960, which helped lead Kennedy to the White House, wed have no Camelot, no Happy Birthday, Mr. President. Perhaps, too, Tricky Dicks legacy would be vastly different. Quite simply, Lonnie changed history. Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? Thats Lonnie, his life and how he changed the national stage almost 59 years ago.
Regarding Lonnie and his legacy on Richs, let me leave that to the pages of my book to explain. Here, I simply want to share some personal memories, which arent really connected, per se, in any type of semblance or story, but are presented as ramblings thoughts of a man I admired.
I remember the day I drove to Lonnies house in Ben Hill to meet him for the first time. It was to be my first of many interviews with him about Richs. When I got out of my car at his home, I had been instructed to knock on his side/back door as his wife was ill at the time and the front door had been blocked and was to be unused to cause the least amount of disturbance to her upon entering the home. Then, as now, the irony of entering via the back door though not meant as a slight wasnt lost on me (as a white male).
Inside the house which reminded me of the mid-century ranch I grew up in in Dothan, Alabama introductions dispensed, we walked to the dining room table and sat down. I began to interview Lonnie, scribbling down as much as I could as fast as I could. I remember him being surprised I didnt tape our conversations; I remember me being surprised at how much he was telling me, and I dont mean just about Richs, I mean about life. I quickly realized this man had seen more in the space of 10 years during the height of the Civil Rights movement than I would likely ever see in my entire life. There across a wooden table top talking to an unproven researcher and unpublished author was a living link to history. And from that initial meeting, a two-hour interview, grew so much more
I remember much about Lonnie countless conversations with him about Richs and the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta during the 1960s (some things of which Ive never repeated publicly), anxiously sharing with him the initial draft chapter in my book about him, attending the funeral of his wife at Spelman, watching the City of Atlanta recognize him as a Civil Rights leader, witnessing him receive an honorary doctorate from Piedmont College (cutting up with his daughter at the event), watching a mural being dedicated to his efforts and in his honor at the Sam Nunn Federal Building in Atlanta, discovering that he and Nathalie Dupree who I also interviewed for Richs had actually worked together years earlier as young Democrats, talking to him about teaching at Georgia State University, randomly running into him at Mary Macs with Richs Foundation President Thomas Asher before they grew to know each other
A few months ago, I reached out to Lonnie to tell him PBS/GPTV was doing a documentary on Richs and that we (I was helping in the effort) wanted to get him scheduled for an interview (or multiple). He asked me to call him back in two weeks; he hadnt been feeling well. I called him back, and he asked me to call him in a couple of months as he was getting over being sick. I had a sinking feeling then that we might not get him on tape for the special. Sadly, I was right.
Of all the things I remember Lonnie telling me, one admission stands out the most: when we were talking in our first meeting about the Civil Rights movement and how things have changed from the 1960s to the 2000s, allowing for laws enacted against discrimination, etc., I asked him what was different about the movement now versus then, his generation and the one that followed, he said, we never thought wed win, to which he added that life happened; that they (the students) needed to get jobs, to raise families. Fortunately, Lonnie carried on with the NAACP, with telling his story, with living.
Rest in peace, Lonnie. You changed my life in unimaginable ways. I stand in awe of the man you were.