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James Atkins, winner of the Dr. C. Eric Lincoln Humanitarian Award at Monday's King Day event in Athens.
Daily photo by John Godbey
James Atkins, winner of the Dr. C. Eric Lincoln Humanitarian Award at Monday's King Day event in Athens.

Athens lawn-care firm owner receives humanitarian award at King Day event

By Holly Hollman 340-2445

ATHENS — James Atkins is tired of seeing young black men end up in one of two places: behind bars or six feet under.

That's why Atkins said he works in his church and community to help others.

"The things I do, I do them just because I can," Atkins said Monday after receiving the Dr. C. Eric Lincoln Humanitarian Award. "My parents taught me to help anybody I could help. We need to reach our young men. If they ain't in jail, they're in the cemetery, and we need to stop this. We need to let them grow up to be fathers and members of the community."

Atkins, who owns Atkins Lawn Care, received the award at the 10th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Program at Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church. The Lincoln-Bridgeforth Park Committee gives the award in honor of Lincoln, who was born in 1924 in Athens.

Lincoln was an author, theologian, ordained Methodist minister and a professor of religion at Duke University. His book "The Avenue, Clayton City" won the Lillian Smith Award for best Southern fiction in 1988.

"It breaks my heart to see and read about the things that happen to our young men," Atkins said. "I knew both of those men killed at TGI Friday's. I knew them since they were small boys. We've got to prevent things like that."

Atkins was referring to the Dec. 17 shooting at a Huntsville restaurant that killed former Athens High basketball player Tank Beavers, 21, and his cousin, former Tanner High basketball player Thurston Duran Turner, 27.

The park committee chose Atkins as its recipient for being a positive role model for youth and the community. Atkins works with Habitat for Humanity, volunteers with the Boys and Girls Club and is involved at New Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church. Atkins drives the van that brings the elderly to services and is president of the church's male chorus.

"I enjoy doing for others," Atkins said, "and it blesses me to do it."

Taking action in the community was the message of the program's guest speaker, Peggy Allen Towns, the district aide for U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville.

Towns said black students are twice as likely to drop out of school as are white students. Black men, she said, are five times more likely than white men to be incarcerated.

"Look in Athens, Decatur and Huntsville and see what is happening on the news," Towns said. "You may say, 'Those aren't my children.' But, no. They are our children."

Towns said the theme for Martin Luther King Jr. Day is "Remember! Celebrate! Act! A Day On, Not A Day Off!"

So, parents need to buy educational materials, she said, and not cell phones for their 8-year-olds. Parents need to stop allowing music with foul language and name-calling into their homes, she said.

"We have a responsibility to stand on the shoulders of people who were bombed, water hosed ... attacked with dogs and gave the ultimate sacrifice," Towns said.

She then referred to the biblical story of the Good Samaritan.

"There was a man in that story who was robbed, beaten and left for dead. Well, our society has been robbed of love and moral values. We've been beaten with hatred and an obsession for drugs. Our neighborhoods have been left to die."

She challenged the audience to be mentors and volunteers and not to take liberties such as voting for granted.

"Many look at this as a day off from work ... a day off from school," Towns said. "It is much more than that. It's a celebration of life. It's a celebration of a movement. It's people united together."

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