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.”

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