Valdosta Daily Times

Local News

January 17, 2013

Candlelight vigil for Lowndes sophomore

Father of Kendrick Johnson calls for justice

VALDOSTA — A crowd of more than 300 filled the amphitheater at Saunders Park to honor the memory and the family of Kendrick Johnson, the 17-year-old Lowndes High School sophomore who was found dead in the gymnasium Friday.

There were tears, inspirational words and fire-and-brimstone prayers at the ceremony, with a background of gospel music to set the mood.

The ceremony started at around 6:45 p.m. with music and a poetry reading, followed by an opening prayer. Lydia Johnson, a member of Kendrick's family, served as Master of Ceremonies for the vigil.

Zack Copeland, a member of the Lowndes varsity football team, along with other athletes, took the stage first. Copeland spoke for the team.

“We're here to celebrate my brother, KJ, and I really appreciate y'all wearing black,” Copeland said of his fellow students in the crowd, who wore black Monday to honor Johnson. “Anything y'all need, just holler at me, or at this team.”

Lydia Johnson announced that Copeland and his teammates “not only lost a football player, they lost a friend,” and asked that the crowd be supportive of the group.

Kenneth Johnson Sr., Kendrick's father, took the stage next with the words, “Give it up for my son!” With his wife and other sons on stage with him, he  called for justice to be served for his son's death, and criticized Lowndes school administration and the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office.

“Lowndes High, it's time to step down,” he said. “Sheriff (Chris) Prine, let's go. My son is gone. He was in school care. If you're not going to protect my son, you're not going to protect the other kids, and we have too many other kids at this school.”

His words were met with loud applause from the audience.

Kenneth also shared a few details about his home life with Johnson and his brothers. The audience sobbed during his stories about his son. A truck driver, Kenneth shared that the other drivers would call Johnson “his shadow.”

“They would ask, where's your shadow today?” Kenneth said. “I carried my son all over the United States with me.”

Kenneth ended his speech with a final plea: “We want justice for my son. You might as well stand up because the truth is going to come out.” The audience gave him a standing ovation.

Copeland helped begin the candle-lighting ceremony, and those in attendance spread the flame from candle to candle. Many brought their own candles.

Wendy Chandler and Tina Neeley, the mothers of Justin Neeley and Perry Chandler, two juniors who died together in a car accident in May 2010, took the stage next to offer words of support. Chandler spoke for the pair.

“The pain doesn't stop tomorrow; it doesn't stop next week; it doesn't stop next month, or in six months, or in a year, or in five years,” Chandler said. “The pain will be with us the rest of our lives. So don't forget the Johnson family. Keep being there for them. Continue to love them. When I heard about Kendrick's death, my heart broke for the Johnson family, and it continues to break.”

Following the speech, the audience observed a moment of silence that was later filled with gospel music. A cluster of white balloons was released, and a final prayer delivered.

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