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Longtime civil rights activists, Knoxville mayor honored at Knoxville Area Urban League’s Equal Opportunity Awards Gala

November 21, 2016

Working on behalf of civil rights for more than 50 years, the Rev. Dr. Gordon Gibson and Judy Gibson received the prestigious Whitney M. Young Jr. Lifetime Achievement award at the Knoxville Area Urban League’s Equal Opportunity Awards Gala last month at the Knoxville Convention Center.

“Our Equal Opportunity Awards recognize and celebrate the power of individuals to make a tangible impact on their communities,” Phyllis Y. Nichols, president and CEO for the Knoxville Area Urban League, said of the Oct. 27 event. “The Gibsons have dedicated their lives to promoting equality and social justice. They have demonstrated passion for fighting injustice and compassion for all people. The Urban League was honored to recognize their legacy of serving others.”

Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero received the Corporate Leadership award. Sanford Smith was honored as the Volunteer of the Year, and Beal Bourne accepted the Minority Business award on behalf of Jarnigan & Son Mortuary.


Rev. Dr. Gordon Gibson and Judy Gibson accept the Whitney M. Young Jr. Lifetime Achievement award at the Knoxville Area Urban League’s Equal Opportunity Awards Gala. Presenter and board member Gwen McKenzie looks on.

At 26 years old, Gibson traveled from Boston to Selma, Alabama, to help push for voting rights for blacks. He was arrested and jailed for protesting in February 1965. Upon being released, he was photographed with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the news of a young white minister’s arrest helped garner press coverage for the movement.

Now retired and living in Knoxville, the longtime Unitarian Universalist minister and his wife, Judy, have continued to support civil rights work. They developed the church’s annual Civil Rights Living Legacy Pilgrimage, through which they lead groups of participants through stops of historical significance throughout the South in order to understand the civil rights journey.

Rogero’s work for economic empowerment and support of minorities dates back several decades, as well. In the 1970s, she worked with noted farm worker leader Cesar Chavez. She was honored by the Knoxville Area Urban League for her efforts as mayor to support the organization’s philosophy of promoting economic empowerment in urban communities.


Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero shares remarks after receiving the Corporate Leadership award from the Knoxville Area Urban League.

“I share this recognition with all City of Knoxville staff who work to promote economic diversity in Knoxville,” Rogero said. “I also was humbled to share the stage with the other honorees. Knoxville relies on the hard work of joyful volunteers like Sanford, and small businesses such as Jarnigan and Sons are vital to the fabric of our community. Gordon and Judy Gibson are models of the spirit of the Whitney M. Young Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award.”

The Whitney M. Young Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award is the most prestigious of all Urban League awards. It is named in honor of the fourth executive director of the National Urban League, Whitney M. Young Jr., who served from 1961 to 1971. Past winners include Theotis Robinson, Jr., in 2015; Rita Geier in 2014; Dr. Harold A. Middlebrook Sr. in 2013; Love Kitchen sisters Helen Ashe and Ellen Turner in 2011; and author, historian and former legislator Robert Booker in 2008.

Alan Williams of WVLT-TV Channel 8 served as master of ceremonies for the 31st annual event, a sellout with more than 800 in attendance. The crowd also enjoyed entertainment by R&B/soul band Tower of Power. The 2017 Equal Opportunity Awards Gala is set for Thursday, Oct. 26.

The Knoxville Area Urban League, founded in 1968 and an affiliate of the National Urban League, promotes equal opportunities for African Americans and disadvantaged others. There are more than 100 affiliates of the National Urban League located in 35 states and the District of Columbia providing direct services to more than 2 million people nationwide through programs, advocacy and research.

For more information on the Knoxville Area Urban League and its programs, call 865-524-5511 or visit