King’s legacy still looms large over prayer breakfast

Fred McCormick

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, the controversial president of North Carolina NAACP, is out as speaker of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Prayer Breakfast Feb. 25. But the Rev. Dr. Larry Hill, an author and pastor of the Woodland Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, is in at the annual event at Camp Dorothy Walls Conference & Retreat Center.

Hill is a graduate of Johnson C. Smith University and holds a Master of Divinity from The Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. Barber, who event organizers began working with months ago, had to back out because of a scheduling conflict, they said.

The prayer breakfast is put on by the Swannanoa Valley Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Corp., to raise money for scholarships that it gives to college-bound students in the Valley. The first breakfast, held in 1991, was at Ridgecrest Conference Center for a crowd that grew beyond expectations, according to former Black Mountain mayor Carl Bartlett.

"(When) we started selling tickets, we wanted to sell 200," he said. "We sold 200, then 300, then 400. By the time it was said and done, we had 700 and something at that first breakfast."

The speaker that year was Harvey Gantt, the first African American admitted to Clemson University (Gantt later became Charlotte’s first black mayor). The breakfast was a “resounding success,” thanks to the support of the community, according to Bartlett.

“We have such good people in Black Mountain,” he said. “I don’t think I was turned down by a single person I asked to serve on that (Swannanoa Valley Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial) committee.”

Sheila Showers is in her second year on that committee and is its current president. The breakfast continues to be an important community event by providing "an atmosphere of unity" and an opportunity to visit with friends and form new friendships, she said.

“We have to constantly protect the light of equality from those who are extinguishers,” she said. Scholarships awarded to students are a way to do that, she said. Proceeds from tickets sales, sponsorships and brochure ads fund the scholarships, given to 11 students last year.

Hannah Snell was one of the recipients last year.

“In today’s society there is such an emphasis placed on high school seniors to go to college,” she said. “The amount of students who get to go to college would decrease without scholarships like these.”

Givens Highland Farms was a key contributor to the scholarship fund last year, according to George Michie, who serves as the corresponding secretary on the MLK Memorial board. Residents of the retirement community gave the scholarship fund $2,000 - "the largest single contribution to the $12,000 that was awarded in financial aid for the current year,” Michie said.

The breakfast has a history of esteemed speakers, including the late Rev. Joseph Roberts, who was picked by King to be the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church in Atlanta. where King was baptized and where he and his father served as pastors.

In 2005 the speaker was Black Mountain native George Hamilton, recognized that same year by Black Enterprise magazine as one of the 75 most powerful African Americans in corporate America for his work at Dow Automotive. Last year award-winning journalist, documentarian and NAACP Legal Defense Fund Humanitarian Award recipient Steve Crump addressed a crowd numbering well into the hundreds.

The prayer breakfast is still going strong, nearly three decades after Bartlett and Lib Harper had the idea to honor King each year in the Swannanoa Valley.

“I’m very proud that this event has been so successful over the years,” Bartlett said. “Of course that success has been due to the committees that have overseen it over the years. It gives me a feeling of pride to know that our community has continued to support this breakfast.”

The scholarships and the work of the board and event volunteers "help replace the tools of racism with education, love and respect,” Showers said.