We need the MLK prayer breakfast

Paul Clark

Police shootings of young black men and other people of color make the annual MLK Prayer Breakfast on Saturday even more relevant today, several Black Mountain residents believe.

“With all the race issues (in the country), the breakfast is more important this year than in a lot years,” said Joan Brown, who was teaching at Black Mountain Elementary School in the 1960s when it absorbed teachers and students from Carver Elementary School, built to serve black students in the area.

“Things are just worse right now than they have been,” she said. “We need to keep Dr. King’s philosophy alive. We need to realize that we can’t afford to backslide.”

There are “still a lot of race-related problems that need to be addressed” in the Valley, said Birt Lytle, who delivered Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the first MLK Breakfast in the Valley in 1991. “We’ve made strides, and you don’t to want to just lose those. It’s easy to become complacent instead of doing what needs to be done in the Valley.”

In many ways, racism in the Valley “is more open than it was,” Lytle said, without going into specifics. But Rosa Hilbert remembers the way it was. Growing up in Asheville in the 1950s and ’60s prior to the civil rights movement, she remembers seeing water fountains in a department store downtown marked for white and nonwhite people. She remembers her mother telling her to stay away from the white ones.

“They will get you,” Hilbert recalled her mother telling her. “And I said, who is ‘they’? That’s the mind set I grew up with.”

The breakfast on Saturday is put on by the Swannanoa Valley Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Corporation, created in 1990. The corporation raises money for deserving, qualified students who want to further their education. Lillian Logan, who in the 1960s experienced “the movement,” as she and others call it, is on the corporation’s scholarship committee. Education is an important way to further King’s dream of equality for everyone, she said.

“We have opened up a lot of ways for minority kids to go to college and apply for scholarships,” she said. “But we still aren’t where we should be today. There are still jobs that should be opened up for our young minority students.

The first MLK Prayer Breakfast occurred in 1991, a year after Black Mountain’s then-mayor Carl Bartlett was leaving the MLK breakfast in Asheville.

In Black Mountain, he formed a committee with Lib Harper and other residents. “We thought if we could sell a couple hundred tickets, it would be great,” he said. “So we started and hit 200, then 300, then 400 tickets. We wound up selling nearly 700 tickets, so we had to move it to Ridgecrest.”

The first speaker was Harvey Gantt, former mayor of Charlotte who had recently lost his race for U.S. Senate to Jesse Helms.

“The weather was awful,” attendee Gay Currie Fox of Black Mountain remembered of that first breakfast. “But in spite of that, people came across N.C. 9 to hear Mr. Gantt, who was a marvelous speaker. It gave the breakfast a firm foundation to start off with. Lots of people came from Asheville.”

Birt Lytle recited King’s “I Have a Dream” speech during that first event. Then 39, he remembers practicing it for a month in front of the mirror at his Black Mountain home.

Lytle had never done any public speaking before, not like that, he said. To keep himself focused, he kept reminding himself of what the speech actually meant, which to him meant that black Americans still had a long way to go toward equality. He wanted to bring the speech to life, not only with King’s mannerisms but through the force of its meaning.

The morning of the speech, wearing a suit and standing in front of all those people, he was being “very, very nervous,” he said. “I had to really concentrate and not focus on the crowd. I was wanting to make sure that I (gave) the speech proper justice.”

Fox said Lytle delivered the speech “in such a beautiful way that it just stunned everyone. He had every word of it,” she said. “It was a powerful experience. He did it with so much feeling that you almost felt that it was the first time (the speech was) given. It made me feel that way.It really made that breakfast.”

Lytle recalls that when he finished, some people were crying. Over the years, as young people have swelled the ranks, he’s seen the annual breakfast increase in size. He’s heartened by that because many of them take their ease in society for granted, only vaguely aware of the history and sacrifice people like King made.

Sheila Showers of Black Mountain shares some of Lytle’s concerns.

“I'm troubled that some think … Dr. King's dream has come true or has faded away. The struggle for total equality still remains,” she said in an email. “The breakfast … is an annual reminder to keep dreaming and working. The scholarships ... help fuel the dream by offering an opportunity for education.

“My hope is those students will … help create an environment for the dream to thrive and live. Think of this - if $1 from 1,000 people can make a scholarship, what could a small change in behavior by 1,000 people do in a community like ours?”

It’s important to remember that bias and hatred still exist, Bartlett said. The breakfast, meant to counter malicious feelings, “promotes community and love toward one another,” he said. “It should go on forever.”

“We haven’t solved the problem yet,” Fox said. “I think Dr. King’s work will continue until the problem is solved. So the breakfast is still very relevant. And I hate to say that, but we’ve got to solve the problem. The breakfast gets us a little bit closer every time.”

MLK Prayer Breakfast

When: 9-11 a.m. Feb. 6

Where: Camp Dorothy Walls

Cost: $15 adults, $6 children ages 3-12