In Photos: 38th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast

A packed crowd of elected officials and community members attended the 38th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast on Saturday, Jan. 19, at the Crowne Plaza Resort Expo Center. Ernest Green, the first member of the Little Rock Nine to graduate from high school, was the keynote speaker. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Sixty years ago, Ernest Green and his classmates were just kids trying to graduate from high school.

“If someone had come down in a time machine and said, ‘In 60 years you will be commemorated on U.S. coins, the Abraham Lincoln Medal of Freedom, feature-length movies, off-Broadway plays and many other honors,’ we would not have believed them,” he told a packed crowd at the 38th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast on Jan. 19.

A member of the Little Rock Nine, Green and his classmates were the first African-American students to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., a seemingly simple act that ultimately set off a turbulent year of racist taunts and threats from fellow classmates and community members.

After Gov. Orval Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard to deny Green and his classmates admittance to the school, Green said he did what his parents had taught him: “I dug in my heals.”

Green’s persistence paid off, and Martin Luther King Jr. himself, who happened to be speaking in Pine Bluff, Ark., at around the same time, attended his graduation.

“When later it came time for me to receive my diploma, and I walked across the stage to deafening silence and everyone holding their breath, I knew that the moral arc of justice had bent just a little bit toward freedom,” Green said, “and things would never be the same again.”

Before Green’s remarks, organizers announced the names of elected officials sitting at the dais. A wave of applause swept the Crowne Plaza Resort Expo Center as newly elected Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller and newly appointed City Manager Deborah Campbell were introduced. Miller and Campbell are the first African-Americans to hold those roles.

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer told the audience the city is committed to fostering institutional equity. “We know that this institutional racism still exists because we can see it in the data,” Manheimer said, pointing to racial disparities in educational attainment, incarceration rates and the wealth gap. “Historically, Asheville has played a part in this system,” she said, “but we’re trying to change that. The city is listening, the city is hearing, and we’re learning. We are endeavoring to be a force for positive change.”

Brownie Newman, the chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, said the county has also been working to level the playing field, which he indicated can be seen tangibly through the county’s work on criminal justice reform and early childhood education.

The county recently was one of 13 communities to receive a $1.75 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to reduce the county’s jail population. “These funds will provide support and expert technical assistance to implement strategies that address the main drivers of local incarceration and to improve the practices that often take a toll on low-income communities, people of color and people with mental health and substance abuse issues,” Newman said.

The county board also recently established an early childhood education fund that will provide $3.6 million annually. “Let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind,” Newman said.

In his remarks, Green said progress is not a single action or moment. It’s a “small, mundane, everyday activity.” “Progress is really like water torture on an unrelenting enemy of stagnancy and complacency,” he said. “Initially it feels like nothing more than tiny droplets of water, and after a while, it beats away at hate and vile rhetoric. Not as rushing water, but still as seemingly small droplets. Progress has to continue. There is no finish line.”


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.