Monday marked the 20th year Charlotte has celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with a prayer breakfast. And the differences between that first one, in 1995, and this year’s are a testament to how the city has changed.
About 100 people turned out that first year, and they gathered early, at 7 a.m., because so many of the attendees had to go on to work. On Monday, the head count at 8 a.m. was about 1,200. And for many, the event was not only the beginning of a day off from their jobs but also a day of service in the community.
Organized again by McCrorey Family YMCA, the 2014 prayer breakfast featured a parade of speakers, including Gov. Pat McCrory, Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon, and author-actor Hill Harper, who was President Barack Obama’s classmate and pick-up basketball game rival at Harvard Law School.
Harper urged those in the audience to expand their “circle of care” to cover those still fighting for a decent life. As examples, he pointed to men and women stuck in dead-end jobs, children trapped in substandard schools, and “the alarming number” of poor whites, blacks and Latinos locked up in prison.
“No matter how well I think I’m doing in Hollywood, if a young man or young woman in Charlotte is not doing well, then I’m not doing well,” said Harper, former star of “CSI: NY” on CBS. “No matter who we are or where we’re from, we’re all connected in this ‘single garment of mutual destiny,’ ” as King once put it.
Harper, who started a foundation to help teens and authored “Letters to a Young Brother: Manifest Your Destiny,” also called on his audience to follow King’s lead in tapping their passion, reason and courage to push for needed change.
In contrast to the heroic depictions of the slain civil rights leader today, Harper said, “50 years ago, he was considered an agitator. When he walked into a room, people got uncomfortable. He had death threats … on a daily basis.”
And if King were still around, Harper told the crowd, “he would be calling on you to do something much more than you’re doing right now. He would be asking you to join him to get arrested right after this event. … He’d be asking you to risk your life.”
Another highlight Monday: The showing of “Dream Charlotte: A Video Tribute from Charlotte’s Living Generations.” It featured more than 50 Charlotteans, some prominent, some not, reciting the words of the “I Have a Dream” speech that King famously gave at the 1963 March on Washington.
Sarah Stevenson, who helped integrate Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and became the first African-American woman on the CMS board, recited: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”
Two former Charlotte mayors – Democrat Harvey Gantt, who’s black, and Republican Richard Vinroot, who’s white – appeared on screen together and jointly recited: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
And in the video’s final image, 11-year-old Avery Borden, a fifth-grader at First Ward Creative Arts Academy, whispered “we are free at last!”
A production of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, the moving video was funded by a grant from the Foundation of the Carolinas.
Every table Monday was adorned with an origami, or folded paper, crane – the international symbol of peace. On each were the words from King’s signature speech.
McCrory, a former mayor of Charlotte, was not listed on the program, but spoke first, lauding the city’s leaders, past and present, who exhibited “content of character” – another phrase from King’s speech – and moved the city forward on civil rights.
Among others, he singled out Franklin McCain, who was one of four black N.C. A&T students who launched a “sit-in” at a whites-only Greensboro lunch counter in 1960. McCain, who died this month, was a longtime Charlottean.
This past week, McCrory drew criticism from many in the African-American community over his recent decision not to hold a special election to fill the vacancy in North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District. The state NAACP has even signaled it may take legal action if the governor doesn’t set a special election date earlier than Nov. 4 – the same date as the general election.
Democrat Mel Watt, the longtime congressman from the 12th, recently resigned to become Obama’s director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.
McCrory’s decision to wait and let whoever is elected in November succeed Watt means voters in the the urban district, which includes parts of Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem, will have no representative in the U.S. House for nearly a year.
McCrory has called his timetable “the simplest, least costly and least confusing option.”
McCrory left the MLK breakfast early and could not be reached later Monday to comment on the controversy.
Also at the Monday breakfast, Deborah Walker received the City of Charlotte Medallion Award Winner. She has been a leader in several community-building initiatives and in groups such as the Community Relations Committee and Crossroads Charlotte.
Walker, who grew up in a turbulent Alabama in the 1950s and ’60s, said King’s 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial “inspired a 12-year-old girl from Birmingham, Ala., to do and make a difference.”
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