“It’s important for people to understand: This event is not just something I decided to do,” says Oralene Anderson Graves Simmons, sitting in her Kenilworth home surrounded by photos and mementos of Asheville’s long-running Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast.
Simmons founded the breakfast, one of the oldest such events in the country, back in 1982. The third Monday in January didn’t become a federal holiday honoring King until the following year and wasn’t celebrated as such until 1986. But long before even the first prayer breakfast, says Simmons, she had “a feeling of wanting to make a change” based on the injustices she’d witnessed and experienced in her own life.
Born in Madison County, Simmons attended elementary school in Mars Hill. But after completing the sixth grade, she had to make a daily 42-mile round trip to attend the segregated Hill Street School and then Stephens-Lee High School in Asheville. “I had to catch a bus and travel to another county to get an education,” she recalls. “I would pass by schools and we could not stop — that bus couldn’t stop there — because of the color of our skins.”
Sometimes Simmons stayed in Asheville during the school week, but weekends would almost always find her making the bus trip back to Mars Hill. “I would take a shortcut across the Mars Hill College campus from the bus stop to our house,” she remembers, “and I would wish I could look forward to going to college there. I mean, this was my home.”
But Simmons had an even closer tie to the school: Her great-great-grandfather, enslaved bricklayer Joe Anderson, was jailed in the 1850s as collateral for a debt the institution couldn’t pay. The community hurriedly raised funds to secure his release, saving him from being auctioned off to cover the bill. Today, Anderson is considered one of the college’s founders. His grave was moved to the campus in 1932, and several local streets, the Anderson Rosenwald School and a park all bear his name.
Despite recognizing Anderson’s contributions, however, Mars Hill College had never admitted a black student. In 1961, at the age of 17, Simmons became the first. She was also an active member of the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality: From 1960 through 1965, ASCORE used nonviolent protest tactics to desegregate local restaurants, Pack Library, Recreation Park and its pool, public restrooms, Memorial Mission Hospital and the old Coxe Avenue bus station waiting rooms.
After graduating with a degree in elementary education, Simmons continued working for social change as she embarked on her professional career. Her first job was as a commissioner for the Model Cities program, part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. “I wanted to bring about a change in employment, health care and housing,” she recalls. When the program ended, Simmons took a position with Asheville’s Parks & Recreation Department.
By 1982, Simmons was the director of the Montford Community Center. That January, she organized Asheville’s first prayer breakfast. Although everyone was welcome, it was envisioned as primarily an event for the immediate Montford neighborhood, which was then predominantly black. Still, Simmons asked the newspaper to run a small article announcing the breakfast, and on that cold and snowy morning, about 75 people from all across the city showed up to celebrate King’s legacy. “The times were just right for it,” she recalls, and the event grew quickly after that.
The Montford Community Center gymnasium could accommodate up to 500 guests. But as ticket sales swung into high gear for the 1986 breakfast, Simmons and her fellow organizers realized they needed a bigger venue. For one thing, it was the first year the federal holiday was actually being celebrated. For another, the keynote speaker was a major draw: Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress and, in 1972, the first black woman to seek a major party’s presidential nomination.
Simmons settled on the Civic Center. “We had a feeling we were going to have maybe 700 to 800 people,” she remembers. “It ended up being 2,000, and I was just so proud.”
Longtime event volunteer Julia Nooe, a retired Mars Hill University professor, says Asheville’s prayer breakfast has attracted many luminaries as keynote speaker over the years. In addition to Chisholm, Nooe mentions Democratic Party strategist Donna Brazile; civil rights leaders Bernard LaFayette Jr., Dorothy Cotton and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth; National Public Radio journalist Juan Williams and Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. as some of the prominent leaders who’ve anchored the event.
“And the keynote speakers were always just elated, once the lights were turned on, to see the diverse group of people that attended,” adds Simmons. “It wasn’t all black people; it wasn’t all dignitaries: It was something for the entire community.”
In 1990, Asheville hosted the state’s celebration of the holiday. In 1992, Simmons received the “The Making of the King Holiday Award” from the hands of Coretta Scott King, the slain civil rights leader’s widow. As a member of North Carolina’s King holiday commission, Simmons traveled to many cities around the country to attend planning conferences and events, including a 1999 celebration of King’s life and legacy at the United Nations.
Over time, however, the Civic Center became a less welcoming venue. One year, new enclosures installed around the ice hockey rink limited the floor area, forcing some guests to sit in the bleachers and creating a bottleneck at the serving lines. Another time, a gun show was slated to follow the breakfast.
So in 2000, the event moved to the Grove Park Inn, where it would be held for the next 14 years. A high point of those years was 2009, when excitement over Barack Obama’s inauguration as the nation’s first African-American president inspired a record turnout of more than 2,000. “I heard so many people say, ‘This is where I thought I should be today,’” Simmons recalls.
Change of venue
Last year, driven by concerns about parking fees at the Grove Park Inn, the event moved again, this time to the Crowne Plaza Resort’s Expo Room. Attendance held steady, with a crowd of around 1,150 filling the big ballroom. Simmons thinks the space worked well for the community celebration, adding, “This year, we need to do a little tweaking with the sound. Even though I’ve been doing this for 35 years,” she continues with a laugh, “it’s not something I can do with my eyes closed: Each year brings a different challenge.”
This year’s breakfast will be dedicated to the memory of longtime event organizer Clara Jeter, who died in August. “She was our ticket lady, and we all loved her so much,” Simmons says softly, her voice quivering with emotion. “She was a very giving person who was concerned about others. She was very active with the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, which she directed for 15 years. After she retired, she volunteered at ABCCM five days a week.”
This year’s theme, “A Call to Service,” honors Jeter’s life as well as Coretta Scott King’s vision of the holiday as “a day on, not a day off” — a day to serve others.
The Rev. Patricia Bacon of Calvary Presbyterian Church in Asheville will give the invocation, while the Rev. Jim McCoy, pastor of Weaverville First Baptist Church, will offer the closing prayer. Music will be provided by the Spirit Choir, led by Damion McDay, who first performed at the breakfast as a 9-year-old soloist.
Rodney Johnson, who recently retired as executive director of parent services at George Washington University, will present the keynote address. The Asheville native graduated from Asheville High School in 1968 and attended Mars Hill College. After graduation, he coached basketball at UNC Asheville, where he also created the office of minority affairs.
“There’s a lot of honor,” notes Johnson, the first Asheville native ever asked to deliver the breakfast’s keynote speech. “Asheville has been very important in my life: I am who I am right now because of what Asheville gave me,” he says. And though he’s reluctant to reveal too much about his remarks, Johnson says he’ll emphasize the critical role of family, education, church and community.
King’s example has been another powerful force. “I’ve gone and I’ve stood where he stood to deliver his address at the Lincoln Memorial,” Johnson recalls. “I am really looking forward to speaking about the influence Asheville had on me and relating that to Dr. King’s message of love.”
Jeter’s death last year highlighted one challenge facing the prayer breakfast: recruiting and mentoring the next generation of civil rights leaders to carry King’s legacy forward. “Our board includes a number of younger people this year, from institutions like A-B Tech and UNC Asheville, as well as agencies, organizations and the business community,” says Simmons.
One of those younger leaders is local business owner Namurah Blakely, who’s also Simmons’ daughter. And though this is her first year serving on the executive committee, Blakely is hardly a newcomer to the event. “I don’t say I was very much help, but I remember the first breakfast very well,” she says, laughing. “I was 11 or 12 years old, and I thought I was helping.” Her biggest concern is continuing to foster a sense of inclusiveness. “We want to make sure everyone feels welcome: every community, every religion, every race,” Blakely emphasizes.
Even the event’s financial support structure helps generate a sense of community ownership and pride. “When you buy an ad in our souvenir journal, you have a feeling that you own a piece of it,” Simmons explains. “And people like to buy a whole table of 10 seats, so they can sit together and celebrate with their family, their church or their co-workers.”
Many people use the breakfast to reawaken and reaffirm their own commitment to social justice. “People say it sets the tone for the rest of their year. If they start in January with a certain feeling — one of love, peace, human dignity and respect — it will not be just for one day,” Simmons maintains. “It’s that way for me: When it’s time to start planning for the breakfast, I’m just a little more mindful of how I say things to people, and my thoughts and actions and prayers.”
Nooe, too, says the breakfast provides an opportunity to step back and consider the bigger picture. “It’s easy to get into our lives and lose sight of where we’re moving in social justice,” she points out. “The breakfast gives us a chance for renewal. We review where we’ve gone and reassess where we’re going. And we always look to see what we can do better.”
At the same time, it’s also a chance to step out in style. Although things have relaxed a bit in recent years, Simmons fondly recalls the beautiful outfits that were once de rigueur. “When we first started, people really dressed up, real high: ladies wearing their beautiful hats and their throws and everything. It was their dignity, and they were so proud of the event,” she says with a radiant smile.
Readings of selections from King’s writings and speeches are another key part of the breakfast. Hearing his words, says Simmons, creates a direct connection to the civil rights leader’s life and work. Although she took part in the 1963 March on Washington, she doesn’t claim to have marched with King. “But I will say I marched with him in my heart: I carried him, and I carry him, in my heart,” she explains.
Meanwhile, through her work on the state’s King holiday commission, Simmons did get to know Coretta Scott King “and traveled with her to different events.”
Looking back, notes Simmons, “We have made some progress: We can change rules and laws and say that we are entitled to certain things. But in trying to achieve those things, stumbling blocks are put in our way … because the hearts of many people have not been changed. You see that with the brutality of many of the police departments. You hear so many politicians talking now, because we’re going into a presidential election year.”
King’s example, though, points the way, Simmons maintains. “That’s why this event is so important: We change their hearts through love.”