The Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Asheville held its 37th annual prayer breakfast at the Expo Center of the Crowne Plaza Resort on Jan. 13. More than 1,000 attendees packed the room for the event, which was founded by Oralene Anderson Graves Simmons, who also served as this year’s keynote speaker.
The prayer breakfast began in 1982 at the Montford Community Center, where Simmons worked as the center’s director. The event has grown exponentially since then and sets the tone for the annual Peace March and Rally, held on Martin Luther King Day in downtown Asheville. The theme for this year’s breakfast was “Community Over Chaos — Moving the Dream Forward.”
Speakers included Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, Buncombe County Commission Chair Brownie Newman and Drew Christy on behalf of N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper. The Mars Hill University Gospel Choir presented musical performances throughout the event. Dan Lunsford, president of Mars Hill University, introduced Simmons and detailed some of her achievements as an internationally recognized civil rights leader.
Simmons shared an address that reflected on her family history and upbringing in Western North Carolina. Simmons offered her unique perspective as the first African-American to integrate what was then called Mars Hill College, an institution that holds special significance to her family’s history. She included a call to service “across the generations, across racial lines and cultural divides.” She added: “We gather as a community with a spirit of hope to meet the challenge of this year’s and every year’s call to service.”
The breakfast’s theme “reflects the need to remain vigilant and active despite setbacks and challenges, in order to make Dr. King’s dream a reality,” Simmons said. She shared excepts from her upcoming book, Journey to Myself, set to publish this year, which serves as a summation of her life’s work in the civil rights movement and her family’s multigenerational journey in the region.
Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams said, “[In] all the years that I’ve attended this event, there’s been a number of very moving speeches, but that was really the most powerful speech that I’ve heard at this event. And of course it was very fitting because she’s the spirit … the heart and soul of this event, and it’s very fitting that she would put a final punctuation on the tone of this year.”
In prepared remarks at the event, Manheimer lauded the community members who continue King’s legacy, especially at this time in history. “I know that some days it doesn’t feel like we are fulfilling Dr. King’s dream, where it often feels like, as a nation, we are taking steps apart, not together, that we’re taking steps back, not forward,” she said. “We cannot change the hateful rhetoric that some leaders speak, but we can challenge it. We can resist these attempts to divide us, because this only serves to take us further from the dreams that so many civil rights leaders have fought to defend.”
For more events honoring Martin Luther King Jr., see “MLK Day events offer chance for celebration, action.”
All photos by Cindy Kunst.