Oralene Anderson Graves Simmons, founding chair of The MLK Association of Asheville and Buncombe County and originator of Asheville’s Prayer Breakfast, was honored with North Carolina’s highest honor during the 35th Annual Prayer Breakfast on January 16, 2016, at the Crowne Plaza Resort Conference Center.
The award was presented by former Buncombe County Commissioner David King on behalf of Governor Pat McCrory (represented by April Riddle, at left). NC State Senator Terry Van Duyn requested the governor bestow the award in recognition of Mrs. Simmons’s lifelong dedication to furthering Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ideals of nonviolent social change. Beginning as a high school student involved with ASCORE, a student-led organization that led the desegregation of Asheville institutions in 1960, continuing with her enrollment as the first African American student ever admitted to Mars Hill College (now University) in 1961, and culminating in her hosting the first annual Prayer Breakfast in 1982 at the Montford Community Center, Mrs. Simmons has committed her life and work to the fulfillment and furthering of Dr. King’s dream.
As part of the 2016 Prayer Breakfast celebration, the commemorative journal included an overview of the hardships Mrs. Simmons faced and the accomplishments she achieved.
Like most African Americans of her generation, she encountered and recognized injustice at an early age. After finishing the Rosenwald Elementary School in Mars Hill, she and her schoolmates made a daily 45-
mile round trip to Asheville by bus, passing many schools along the way that they could not attend because of the color of their skin.
“I was full of life and hope and wanted to make a change,” wrote Simmons. “I heard the voice of Dr. King when he said we should be judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin.”
She saw the dirty, rusty water fountain with a sign that said “colored,” and the shiny one with a sign that said “white.” She knew on boarding the bus that she had to sit in the back.
Mrs. Simmons became a member of the Asheville Youth Committee on Racial Equality and helped to integrate lunch counters, the library, and public facilities in Asheville. And she wanted to go to college – Mars Hill College – in her home town. It was an all-white school, but it was where she felt she belonged. Her great-great grandfather, Joe Anderson, a slave, had made the bricks for the building of the college; his grave is located on the campus, and a street is now named for him. In 1961, Oralene was accepted as the first black student at Mars Hill.
Even after Mars Hill, when she applied for jobs, “the first thing I knew to ask was, ‘Will you hire a Negro for the job?’ In applying for housing, I knew to ask, ‘Would you rent this house to a black person?’”
Mrs. Simmons did get a job with the Asheville Parks and Recreation Department, and one of her responsibilities was planning special events for every month of the year. In January 1982, she put her skills to use and planned the first public Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast. Friends, colleagues, and even her children – some still living at home, some returning from college – quickly stepped forward to help.
Now, in the breakfast’s 35th year, the Asheville and Buncombe County community comes together across the generations, across racial lines and cultural divides, offering service to others as our means and our goal. 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. As we serve together, we also celebrate together.
Yet our celebration is tempered by the sobering awareness that much remains to be done to eradicate poverty, racism, and war, in our nation and the world. It becomes increasingly clear with each passing year that Dr. King’s teachings are proving to be the most powerful tool available to people struggling for human rights, social and economic justice, and peace.