Charlotte kicked off its Monday celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s holiday with an uptown prayer breakfast that drew more than 1,100 people a new record for the annual event sponsored by the Greater Charlotte YMCA and the City of Charlotte.
The keynote speaker at the Charlotte Convention Center was Chef Jeff Henderson, 48, a nationally renowned chef, author, TV star and motivational speaker.
Calling Monday a day for the history books, he told the crowd that Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and other black slaves-turned-leaders had worked the fields and planted the seeds that bore fruit with the emergence of King, the first African-American to get a national holiday, and President Barack Obama, who publicly began his second term Monday with an inaugural address in Washington.
Henderson, a one-time drug dealer who turned his life around by learning how to cook in prison kitchens, urged his audience to join him in planting seeds of their own by helping others who need mentors and second chances.
My calling was to go back and help transform young people who have no dreams, Henderson said. Inside every fruit, there is a seed.
Henderson traced his own story told in the best-selling book, Cooked: My Journey from the Streets to the Stove from child in poverty to big-time crack cocaine dealer to ex-con and, finally, to celebrity chef.
During his nearly decade in jail, he read his first book, got his high school equivalency diploma, learned how to cook and started believing in himself. Then, after his release, he found mentors, developed a plan, and pursued it by doing the work and making the necessary changes.
I had to straighten up the way I walked. I had to pull my pants up, he said. I had to learn to smile. I had to begin to understand the power of diversity and be able to move in circles with individuals who didnt look like me.
He had learned the ways of business on the street, as a drug dealer. But he was suddenly selling different products himself and his culinary talents that required integrity and character.
Henderson went on to become the executive chef at Café Bellagio in Las Vegas, host his own TV shows (The Chef Jeff Project on the Food Channel, Beat the Chefs on the Game Show Network) and sit on Oprahs couch during her show on Resilience.
Now, Henderson told the crowd, his mission is to reach out to and raise up young people who are like he once was. He invited those at the breakfast to do the same.
When we walk out of this Convention Center today, are we willing to reach back today and grab one of the little home boys or the little home girls in the neighborhood? Henderson asked. If dont teach them (respect and values) in the neighborhood, these same youngsters that we see on the news every day, who is? We dont need them to get taught in prison. We need them to get taught right now.
The 19th annual prayer breakfast, hosted by WCNC-TV anchor Sonia Gantt, opened with music: The Johnson C. Smith Gospel Choir sang Lift Every Voice and Sing, sometimes referred to as The Negro National Hymn.
The morning event also brought awards.
Some prominent Charlotteans were honored for furthering Kings legacy and message.
Among the recipients: WBTV reporter Steve Crump, whos forged a second career as the maker of documentary films on black history; McCrorey YMCA volunteers Alba and Ellen Cornish; community leader Sally Robinson; Dave and Chini Nichols of the Center for Sustainable Change; and McCrorey YMCA teen leader Teal Green.
Crump attended the breakfast, but had to leave before accepting his MLK Medallion to catch a plane to Washington to cover Obamas inauguration.
All proceeds from the breakfast will go to the McCrorey YMCA, which began in 1936 as a Y for African-Americans at a time when segregation was the law in North Carolina.