Nearly 1000 people assembled in the Grove Park Inn’s Grand Ballroom on Jan. 18 for this year’s edition of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast. Organizers judged it the biggest turnout ever for the annual event, now in its 22nd year. The powerful voices of the Martin Luther King Choir, directed by Randy Western, set a joyful yet prayerful mood.
Speaker Russell Johnson gave a moving tribute to the late civil-rights leader, stressing the obligation of King’s admirers to follow a path of peace and integrity in their own lives, especially in a time of imminent war.
But the highlight of the morning was the keynote address given by Dennis Rahiim Watson, president/CEO of the New York City-based National Black Youth Leadership Council. An entertaining and inspiring speaker, Watson has received many awards for his work with black youth and has lectured and led workshops at such Ivy League bastions as Yale, Harvard, Columbia and Cornell, as well as Morehouse College and Howard University.
At one point, the impassioned speaker left the podium and walked among the audience — singing Motown songs, dancing and storytelling as he took the group back to the era of Martin Luther King in a very real and human way. The crowd was right there with him as he spoke about honor, integrity and hope.
Watson also stressed the importance of women in social-justice movements everywhere. Speaking of his travels through Africa with Mrs. King, he said, “I want to honor not only the heroes but the she-roes.” And Watson’s humor and wit never let up as he raised the spirits and hopes of a roomful of listeners. “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day,” crooned Watson as the audience sang along to music popular during King’s lifetime. “Motown affected us all — black, white, yellow, red,” he emphasized. And pulling a young African-American boy to his feet in the crowd, Watson intoned, “I keep hope alive for you,” repeating this message as he looked out at the audience.
The messages of peace, hope and respect seemed to stay with the crowd as they left the premises. “Dennis Watson brought us in on a different level,” said Sophie Dixon, vice president of the Asheville chapter of the NAACP. And Inez Whiteside, a participant in the MLK breakfasts since the beginning, remarked: “The speaker was wonderful. It was authentic and enlightening.”
Afterward a small contingent met for a Community Dialogues session led by the MLK Committee, the group responsible for staging the breakfast. Among the assembled notables were Asheville Mayor Charles Worley, three District Court judges, and Superintendent Robert Logan of the Asheville City Schools, as well as the leaders of many local nonprofits. The dialogues centered on a problem-solving process for the full spectrum of racial issues facing Asheville and on networking between organizations and government agencies.
From its simple beginnings in a community center in Montford, the Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast has evolved into a point of light on Asheville’s community calendar each year.