- 1982 – first Prayer Breakfast held at Montford Community Center, sponsored by Asheville Parks & Recreation Department
- 1986 – breakfast moved to Asheville Civic Center
- 1990 – Asheville hosts the entire NC State King Holiday Commission (the only city other than Raleigh to receive this honor)
- 1990 – Breakfast founder Mrs. Oralene Simmons receives the Order of the Long-Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest honor, for her leadership in honoring Dr. King
- 1992 – Mrs. Coretta Scott King presents the King Holiday Award to Oralene Simmons
- 1998 – The City of Asheville dedicates the statue of Dr. King in Martin Luther King Park downtown, the gift of the MLK Breakfast Committee to the community
- 2000 – breakfast moved to historic Grove Park Inn & Resort Grand Ballroom
- 2000 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Association of Asheville & Buncombe County chartered by the Secretary of State of North Carolina
- 2010 – Gov. Beverly Perdue appoints Oralene Simmons to the NC MLK Commission
- 2011 – Thirtieth Annual breakfast with keynote speaker Donna Brazile and special guests Senator Kay Hagan and Representative Heath Shuler
- 2012 – Thirty-first Annual breakfast with keynote speaker Dr. Boyce Watkins brought 1,150 guests to the Grove Park Inn
- 2014 – Joint keynote speakers Dawn Porter and Travis Williams preview their award-winning film, Gideon’s Army, at UNC Asheville
- 2015 — Dr. Thavolia Glymph of Duke University was the keynote speaker, addressing the challenges and accomplishments of black women during and following the institution of slavery
- 2016 – Founder of the Prayer Breakfast and the MLK Association Oralene Anderson Graves Simmons is honored with North Carolina’s highest honor, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine
- Leadership in bringing the City of Asheville to name Martin Luther King, Jr. Park
- Planning, design, fundraising, and installation of the King statue, given as a gift to the City of Asheville
- Establishment of a Youth Scholarship to defray college costs for Youth Award winner
- Sponsored community Rally Against Racism in response to racist acts committed at Bele Chere festival
- Co-sponsorship, with UNC Asheville and actress and activist Andie MacDowell, of screening of The Greatest Silence, proceeds to support two women’s shelters
- Fundraising and distribution of substantial gift to UNICEF Haiti earthquake relief fund
The Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast began as the dream of Oralene Simmons when she was director of the Montford Community Center, a facility operated by Asheville’s Parks & Recreation Department. Simmons wanted to invite residents of the Montford community and her many friends to share breakfast and pay their respects to a great and inspiring leader in a unique, special way. Reflecting on how Dr. King thought about and acted toward people of all colors, races, and religion, and how he tried to get them to sit down at the peace table together, Simmons asked herself, “Why not an interfaith Prayer Breakfast right here in Asheville?”
As a city employee she was hesitant about how the program might be perceived, so she consulted with her supervisor, Leslie Anderson, on the appropriateness of holding such an event in a city facility. Anderson was enthusiastic, so Simmons shared her idea for a breakfast with long-time friend Wanda Coleman, director of the YMI Cultural Center, who lent her $50 to purchase food, and with the Baha’i Community, which made posters announcing the breakfast; she also placed a notice in the Asheville Citizen-Times. Though the day of the breakfast was a chilly, snowy Saturday morning, some 75 people came from all over the city. Fortunately, the article in the newspaper had been read by Phyllis Sherrill, who hurried in to the community center that morning and started stirring and cooking eggs. With such support and such a turnout, what could have been a one-time, one-woman show became the seed of today’s celebration.
No one—certainly not Oralene Simmons—would have guessed how big the annual breakfast would become. For the next few years a committee representing churches, schools, colleges, business organizations, and nonprofits worked together to plan each celebration. By the fifth year, the event grew to fill the Asheville Civic Center, where Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm drew a crowd of 2,000 people! That same 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 the late 1990s the committee was forced to share space with a seasonal ice skating ring, which limited seating (and made for frigid feet); so in 2000, 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’s banquet hall, which hosted the breakfast for 15 years. Later that year the organization separated from the city, and on October 1, 2002 the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Association was chartered as a private, nonprofit organization in the state of North Carolina, with Mrs. Simmons as chairperson of the board; its mission is to preserve and advance the legacy of Dr. King.
For more than three decades it has been the pleasure and the pride of the association to host one of the most successful and admired Martin Luther King celebrations in the southeast, second only to Atlanta’s annual dinner in number of attendees. The observance is diversified and unique, aiming to remember, honor, learn, follow, and expand upon Dr. King’s life and philosophy, and every year we recognize citizens, both adults and youth, whose lives and actions help fulfill those goals in our own community.
In 1990 Asheville hosted North Carolina’s official state Martin Luther King Celebration, at the request of Governor James G. Martin, who appointed Mrs. Simmons to co-chair the state’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission. Asheville’s celebration has been used as a model for many cities in the state and was featured in the U.S. Congress’s report to the President about King Holiday celebrations. In 1992 the federal MLK Commission honored Mrs. Simmons with the “Making of the King Holiday Award,” presented by Coretta Scott King, for her outstanding work in creating a celebration that had become a model for the nation.
The planning process for the program is unlike that of many other communities, in that the private, nonprofit association is responsible for program development and coordination as well as for fundraising to meet the budget. In its early days, organizer Ed Schell conceived of selling patron tickets to help defray the cost of renting the Civic Center. Now a “buy-in” from the whole community is sought—and achieved—through the sale of advertising in the Souvenir Journal, as well as in-kind contributions to support the Peace March, Candlelight Service, and Youth Celebration. The celebration committee comprises representatives from nonprofit community agencies, fraternal and sororal organizations, businesses, schools, universities, and a wide, interfaith group of faith communities.
Each year a proclamation is issued by the Mayor and City Council to announce Martin Luther King, Jr. Week in the city and invite citizens to join in the celebration; the chairman of the Buncombe County Commission, the Governor of North Carolina, and our 11th District Congressman present or read greetings and well-wishes. The week’s events are attended by a cross-section of people representing Asheville’s diversity.
An untold number of friends and volunteers have given of their time and talent to make the celebration possible, beginning with Phyllis Sherrill at the very first breakfast. Other indefatigable long-time members of the breakfast planning committee since its earliest years include still-active members Jacquelyn Hallum, Jacqueline King, Clara Jeter, and Julia Nooe, who have happily done “whatever needs doing” for years beyond count. So did Diana Tockes, Willie Mae Brown, Ed Schell, and Dr. Eugene Rainey for many, many years—and so still do many, many others, too numerous to name.
After thirty-fiveyears of celebrating Dr. King’s life and keeping his—our—Dream alive, the MLK Association is looking forward to our 36th Annual Prayer Breakfast to be held Saturday, January 14, 2017, at the Crowne Plaza Resort in Asheville.