Mayor Toby Barker and several other local figures will be honored with various awards at the 16th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Ecumenical & Scholarship Celebration, hosted by Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity – the Mu Gamma Lambda Chapter and the Mu Xi Chapter.
The event, which is designed to gather the community to commemorate the life, work and legacy of King, will be held at 7:30 a.m. Jan. 17 at the Thad Cochran Center on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi.
“We seek every year to keep the thoughts and memories and works of (King) in the forefront of our community, in that he visited our community at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Spencer Street,” said Ellie Holloway, program chairman of the event. “Many of the older members of our community marched with him during the Civil Rights days.”
Five awards will be given at the ceremony: the Bridge Builder Award, the Community Impact Award, the Community Service Award, the Douglass T. Baker Memorial Award and the Humanitarian Award.
Barker, along with Tommy King – who serves as president of William Carey University – will receive the Bridge Builder Award.
“I think it’s the impetus and desire of all of our civic leaders to bring people together, but the men of Alpha feel that Mayor Barker has bridged the many gaps and served as the connecting point for oneness in our city,” Holloway said. “He has been one of equity, diversity, and inclusion.
“And in that I have known him since his arrival at the University (of Southern Mississippi), his spirit and his walk has been one to build bridges of understanding and tolerance. Dr. Tommy King (will receive the award) for the work he’s done to stabilize, anchor and improve the areas around William Carey University.”
The Community Service Award will go to Gay Polk-Payton, who serves as judge at Forrest County Circuit Court and is the owner of Polk-Payton Law Office. She also is an adjunct faculty member with USM’s Human Performance and Recreation Department.
Nicholas Brown, who serves as Ward 5 Councilman on Hattiesburg City Council, also will receive the Community Service Award. Brown was originally elected to the seat in 2017 when he defeated then-incumbent Henry Naylor, and was re-elected in 2021.
“(For that award), we look at people who have served and gone beyond the scope of what they’re paid to do,” Holloway said.
The Community Impact Award will go to Robert Williams, superintendent of the Hattiesburg Public School District, and Delores McNair, who serves as president of that district’s board of trustees.
“Since Dr. Williams’ arrival, and Mayor Barker’s appointment of Mrs. McNair, the school district has continuously improved, with Woodley Elementary School having a ‘B’ rating,” Holloway said. “And there’s continuous improvement and continuous programming for excellence throughout our school district.”
The Douglass T. Baker Memorial Award will go to Helmon Johnson, a 56-year employee of Pearl River Valley Opportunity, where he has served as director and executive director.
“They provide housing, they develop communities, they have all kinds of self-supported programs that they try to implement in their multi-county region,” Holloway said. “They have Head Start for our area as well.”
The Humanitarian Award will go to Roger Jones, a State of Mississippi retiree and a 50-plus year member of Alpha Phi Alpha.
Special speaker at the event will be Alfred Rankins, former president of Alcorn State University.
“We asked him to speak on quality higher education and the dream of Dr. King,” Holloway said.
In addition, officials also will award 10 college book scholarships for students upon their entry into a two- or four-year college.
“The bedrock of the fraternity is ‘go to school, go to college,’” Holloway said. “We award these to seniors from 10 different high schools.”