Brittany D. McClure
The Valdosta Daily Times
The Valdosta-Lowndes County Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration Association held its 28th Anniversary Founders Banquet Saturday night at the James H. Rainwater Conference Center.
Commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and remembering the founding roots of the association that started 28 years ago in the home of Ruth Council, the evening was celebrated through the honoring of noble leaders.
One of those celebrated leaders was Valdosta City councilman Joseph “Sonny” Vickers, who was honored as this year’s recipient of the Candle in the Dark award, which was established to pay tribute to someone who is a giant in their field or in their community.
“Dr. King said ‘Take the first step in faith, you don’t have to see the whole staircase,’” said Valdosta City manager Larry Hanson. “Sonny Vickers has taken many first steps.”
Vickers was elected to the Valdosta City Council for a one year term in 1985 and re-elected for a four year term in 1986, and has served more than 22 years as the councilman for District 3.
In 2011, Vickers was appointed Mayor by the Valdosta City Council, making him the first African-American mayor in the city’s history.
“Sonny Vickers was appointed mayor because of the content of his character,” said Hanson, after quoting King’s dream for men to be judged not by the color of his skin, but by his character.
Some of Vickers’ proudest accomplishments as a local elected official are facilitating the paving of more than 26 miles of dirt streets and spearheading the efforts to establish a housing program in the city of Valdosta. He has remained faithful to his family, his church — the River Street Church of Christ — and community while leading four decades of service in numerous organizations.
While Vickers has many accomplishments to his name, he is soft-spoken, not boastful, and according to Hanson, doing most of his work behind the scenes putting people over politics and practicing the very ideals that all public servants should aspire to.
“Always the candle in the dark,” said Hanson.
Even as Vickers accepted his award and received applause, his first words were to thank others.
“I just owe so many individuals,” said Vickers.
While maybe not consciously, Vickers was embodying the very leader the night honored, as it was King who once said “humility is the greatest quality of great leaders.”
Another celebrated leader of the evening was keynote speaker Rev. Dr. Perry Simmons, Jr. Born in Cairo, Simmons has ministered in Moultrie, Valdosta, Hahira, Quitman, and now Newark, N.J. where he has resided as the pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church for 30 years. He is the author of “Have You Got Good Religion?”, “The Importance of Establishing a Black Christian Family,” and “Black Man, Where Art Thou?” along with over 2,000 sermons and papers.
Simmons spoke on the importance of music.
“Song was an important part of the civil rights movement,” said Simmons.
“Life Every Voice and Sing” and “We Shall Overcome” were used to solicit courage, calm nerves and provide inspiration.
Joan Baez was the first to sing the morning that more than 250,000 people marched in Washington, D.C. with King.
Bob Dylan once sang “Only A Pawn in Their Game” and Peter, Paul and Mary sang “If I Had A Hammer”.
“The people that sang for civil rights knew that music helped make people strong,” said Simmons.
Simmons relayed King as a prophet to the people and spoke of the challenges of the Ku Klux Klan, the white liberal church and even Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson, who refused to let King speak at the Baptist National Convention.
While Simmons talked about the sting of racism that once was, he also spoke of the racism that still exists today.
“How far have we really come?” Simmons posed.
While public places are desegregated and courts, according to Simmons, are “more than less fair, racism still exists. The sting of racism still follows us today.”
Simmons pointed to the wealth gap that has grown, the fact that one in 30 white men are in prison while one in nine black men are incarcerated, many neighborhoods are still segregated, but most of all, churches still worship separately.
“Churches still seem to be the most segregated institutions in this country,” said Simmons.
Simmons questioned how all churches and members seem to be serving one God, with one Heaven and one Hell and yet, races still seem to worship separately.
Simmons pointed to the schools and history books re-writing history, writing out slavery and racism.
“This is our country that has racism in its history,” said Simmons.
Simmons talked about the biases against each other, not just in race, but in political affiliations such as democrats and republicans.
“My brothers and my sisters, we are to be a light unto each other,” Simmons urged.
Issues of unemployment, the poverty gap, under-education and more are signs that though we have come far, we still have far to go.
“Being black in America is trying to smile, when you really want to cry,” said Simmons.
Simmons speech went from message, to sermon, to song and led the audience to, one by one, lift out of their seats. Some praised with their hands in the air and others gave moans and nods of agreement, but all watched and all listened as Simmons preached the legacy of King while relaying the realities of our current generation.