Since 1981, Oralene Simmons, founder and chair of The Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County, has watched the organization’s annual prayer breakfast grow from 50 or so attendees to several thousand. Now in its 40th year, the association is preparing for its latest gathering. But unlike in the past, the 2021 commemoration will take place exclusively online.
The decision, made in response to the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis, is bittersweet. The prayer breakfast “brings together so many people and kind of sets the tone for the rest of the year,”says Simmons. “We hope we’ll be able to reach the same number of people with our virtual programming.”
One hurdle, explains the association’s vice chair, Joseph Fox, is the platform itself. While younger supporters have embraced the move, many of the community’s older residents continue to call Fox’s office, unsure how to access and view the prerecorded videos, which will be posted daily on the association’s YouTube Channel beginning Friday, Jan. 15, and concluding Tuesday, Jan. 19.
“That’s probably the major challenge,” says Fox. “To shift the mindset of folks who are used to meeting face to face for our events but who are now being asked to attend online.”
Highlights from the weeklong series include a candlelight service to honor community leaders; updates from the Buncombe County Remembrance Project, a community coalition aimed at researching racially motivated lynchings in the region; a recitation of the names of people of color recently killed by police and vigilantes; and a keynote address from Simmons, who will reflect on the association’s continuation of King’s legacy over the last 40 years.
It hasn’t been an easy road, Simmons notes. In the early days, she remembers threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. “Being the founder made me a target for some folk who probably did not believe in social justice and our efforts to make a change for the better and bring people together,” she explains.
Today, adds Fox, the push for racial equity remains an ongoing struggle. From housing to employment, health care to education — inequities and biases remain, he says. Meanwhile, “hate groups have been emboldened” by current political rhetoric.
Still, both Simmons and Fox look to the future with hope. They note that the summer protests over the police killing of George Floyd have led to deeper discussions and ongoing actions toward a more just society. “It’s been a long time coming,” says Simmons. “And it has come to fruition by people speaking out, negotiating and coming to consensus.”
Local support remains strong, notes Fox. “Looking ahead, we are optimistic that the current movement will counter the hate groups that have felt emboldened in recent years. We have hope that our supporters will continue to stand up for the principles that guided Dr. King.”
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