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.
Lowndes County Schools express grief over
The following was issued by Lowndes County Schools superintendent Wes Taylor Wednesday afternoon:
“As law enforcement continues to investigate the details leading to the tragic death of one of our students, Kendrick Johnson, the administrators, teachers, and board members of the Lowndes County School System want to again express our sorrow to the family and friends of Kendrick. Kendrick was a sophomore at Lowndes High and had been a student in the Lowndes County Schools since the second grade.
“Our grief is elevated because Jacquelyn Johnson, Kendrick’s mother, is a valued employee and friend of the Lowndes County School System. Mrs. Johnson has been a bus driver in our system for 10 years. When she is ready, we and the students on her route look forward to her return.
“Additional counselors, social workers, and school psychologists have been made available this past week to help our Lowndes High students and staff deal with this tragic loss.
“We are supportive of the way our student body has organized to honor their lost friend and fellow classmate. The students have displayed a level of maturity and empathy in supporting the Johnson family that makes us all proud.
“We, as a school family, extend our love, prayers, and support for Kendrick’s family, friends, and fellow students in this time of grief.
“We will continue to cooperate with the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in their ongoing investigation.”