Perry Mays professed not to know why he merited Atlantic County’s annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award, but everyone else at the ceremony Friday seemed to be well aware.

Mays, of Pleasantville, is chairman of the Stop the Violence Coalition of Atlantic County and has a long history of activism in his community. He has been an inspirational leader in the effort to reduce drug use and violence in the region, officials said, adding that, like King, Mays has steadfastly faced the dangers associated with working toward peace in the name of giving his children a better place to live.

“What Mr. Mays is undertaking, he doesn’t have to do,” County Executive Dennis Levinson said.

More than 100 people who attended the ceremony in the county office building in Atlantic City stood and applauded Mays, who said the work he does is simply the right thing to do.

“We have accomplished a lot, but there’s still more to be accomplished,” Mays said.

Levinson noted that since the county’s ceremony began in 1988, there have usually been two award recipients each year. This year, they chose to honor only Mays to reflect the importance of his work.

Mays worked for AtlantiCare for 32 years before recently retiring. In 1997, as director of community partnerships for health engagement at AtlantiCare, he organized more than 300 drug marches throughout the county, leading to the closing of several crack houses and the awarding of a Weed and Seed crime-prevention and community-enrichment grant in Atlantic City and Pleasantville.

The father of four is involved in a number of other groups, in addition to teaching Sunday School at Holy Trinity Assembly of God in Mays Landing.

The ceremony started with James Gillespie Jr. of Atlantic City’s Second Baptist Church and the Rev. John Howard of Atlantic City’s New Hope Baptist Church providing an invocation and keynote speech, respectively.

Levinson then turned the focus on Atlantic City and Pleasantville, both of which struggle with drug- and gang-related violence.

“The longest war we have ever fought was not Afghanistan or Vietnam,” he said. “The longest war we’ve ever fought was the War on Drugs.”

Levinson called for the decriminalization of drugs and treatment for offenders, which he said would reduce the power of “thugs” that run the streets.

He also said Mays demonstrated great courage by challenging his community to fight back.

“When you start rocking that boat, you do at times put yourself in harm’s way,” he said.

In his remarks Friday, Mays told the audience that if they see at-risk youth in their neighborhood, they should take them aside and talk to them, and maybe they could help save a life.

“It takes all of us to do this together,” he said.

Friday’s event ended with a medley of songs performed by Gail Taylor, a county employee with the Department of Family and Community Development, highlighted by a rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

“I believe we all need the grace to carry us from here to there,” Taylor said.

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