Saturday, January 16, 2016 marked thirty-five years since Asheville’s first Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast was held at Montford Community Center. It would be another five years before the federal government recognized Dr. King with a national holiday, but the director of the community center, Oralene Simmons, wanted to invite her Montford neighbors and other friends to pay their respects to a great and inspiring leader. Reflecting on Dr. King’s immeasurable contributions to American history, and his lifelong work of encouraging people of all colors, races, and faiths to join in brotherhood, Simmons envisioned an interfaith prayer breakfast that would bring together people from different walks of life here in Asheville.
Her Parks & Recreation supervisor, Leslie Anderson, was enthusiastic and supportive, and Simmons also reached out to Wanda Coleman, director of the YMI Cultural Center; to the Baha’i Community; and to The Asheville Citizen-Times to publicize the plan. She hoped that a few dozen supporters might show up.
On that chilly, snowy Saturday morning in January, 1982, some 75 people arrived from all over the city. A long-time friend, Phyllis Sherrill, who had read the article in the newspaper, hurried in to pitch in and help cook eggs for all and sundry. What could have been a one-time event had laid the groundwork for decades of growth.
Over the next few years a committee of churches, schools and colleges, business organizations, and nonprofits worked together to plan each celebration. The fifth year, a crowd of 2,000 filled the Asheville Civic Center to hear Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm speak. That year Martin Luther King Day became a federal, state, county, and city holiday, and for the next dozen years or so the breakfast took place at the Civic Center, through sleet, ice, snow, and occasional sunny warm January days.
In 1990, North Carolina Governor James G. Martin named Simmons co-chair of the NC King Commission and invited Asheville to host the state’s Martin Luther King Celebration. Two years later, Mrs. Coretta Scott King presented Simmons with the federal MLK Commission’s “Making of the King Holiday Award” for her outstanding work in creating a celebration that had by then become a model for the nation. In 2016, Mrs. Simmons was honored with the Order of the Long-Leaf Pine by Governor Pat McCrory, represented by his liaison, April Riddle.
Beginning in the late 1990s, the Prayer Breakfast was forced to share space with a seasonal ice skating ring, which limited seating – and led to many cold feet. In 2000, in response to the discomfort and inconvenience and facing the enviable problem of having more attendees than seats available, the breakfast, still under the auspices of Asheville Parks and Recreation, moved to the Grove Park Inn, whose banquet hall was the largest in Asheville. Later that year the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Association was incorporated as a private, nonprofit organization. Mrs. Simmons was elected board chair, and the organization’s stated mission was “to preserve and advance the legacy of Dr. King.”
The annual breakfast, now held at the Crowne Plaza Resort, brings more than 1,100 residents together each January in an ecumenical celebration of Dr. King’s life. Keynote speakers have represented a wide range of public life. In addition to Congresswoman Chisolm, they have included Representative Walter Fauntroy and Chair of the U. S. Human Rights Commission Dr. Mary Frances Berry; civil rights leaders Dr. Bernard LaFayette, Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and Ms. Dorothy Cotton; journalists and commentators Donna Brazile, Leonard Pitts, Jr., and Juan Williams; and documentary filmmakers Dawn Porter and Travis Williams.
In addition to each year’s breakfast, events recognizing Martin Luther King Day include bestowing awards on area adults and youth who embody the spirit of Dr. King in their life and work, and a Peace March and Rally on the Monday holiday, to which participants are asked to bring nonperishable food items for distribution to Manna Food Bank.
The 2016 MLK celebration weekend will be dedicated to the late Clara Jeter, whose decades of service benefiting Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, the Prayer Breakfast, and numerous other organizations, exemplified Dr. King’s exhortation to serve the community.