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Hundreds March to Pack Square Park for MLK Day

Marian Foster
Arts & Feature 
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Photos By: Renato Rotolo
Oralene Simmons the founder of The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County speaks at Pack Square Park.

Hundreds braved below-freezing temperatures to participate in Asheville’s annual Peace March and rally. Hosted by the Martin Luther King Association of Asheville and Buncombe County, the MLK Day tradition drew in a crowd of about 600 people. 
People of various ages and ethnicities gathered at the now-defunct Berry Temple United Methodist Church to convene before the 20 minute march to Pack Square Park. The church, which was filled to capacity, hosted speakers who dictated the significance of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy. They led the crowd with call-and-response to unify and electrify the participants before the march. 
“We are better together,” chanted the crowd as they stood closely inside the warm church. 
The president and founder of the Martin Luther King Association, Oralene Simmons, recalled how the annual march began. 
“I started with programs celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday because he had been a long time hero of mine, having served as a civil rights leader in the integration of the lunch counters, and the public facilities and being a member of the Asheville Student Council of Racial Equality,” Simmons said. “We understood him to be a leader in civil rights. I wanted to connect with him and his philosophies and his principles and so, therefore, I came up with the Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast.”
Simmons invited members of her community to celebrate at the prayer breakfast with her. 
“The first time it was called Snowy Morning and we had about 35 people. There was a great demand for me to continue doing this, so the next year we grew and we just kept on growing,” she said.
After five years, the celebration outgrew the recreation center where it was previously held. She moved the festivities to the Asheville Civic Center to accommodate the 2000 people in attendance.
“It was at that time that we added on the Peace March and asked people to join in, to march and to make a statement, bring their banners and their signs, and join in with us in the marching and also in hearing and sharing messages,” she said.
Joyia Kearns, a teacher at Carolina Day School, held a colorful banner that her students made as she marched to the plaza. Having never attended a march previously, she was inspired by her daughter’s involvement in the San Francisco Women’s March to participate in this year’s rally. She felt that King and his philosophies were key to her involvement in the march.
“I think I was 9 years old when he made his speech and really I started to understand what he was about,” Kearns said. “I just think it’s important for every one of us, it doesn’t matter what color you are. I have three granddaughters and I want a world for them that is much better than today and we keep making strides and improvements but we have a long way to go.”
Lisa Mcwhorter, who participated in the march, also expressed admiration for King’s legacy.
“He was such a wonderful empowering force for civil liberties for people and not only that, Martin Luther King emphasized a really peaceful approach instead of, you know, violence or anything so it’s very meaningful,” said McWhorter. “I just feel I need to show support for civil liberties. We’re in such an oppressive environment right now with President Trump in office and I just feel a need to make all effort to give support.”
The freezing weather did not deter many from attending the Peace March. Bundled up in heavy winter coats, thick scarves and gloves, individuals marched out of the church with their bright signs in tow. 
Event goers filled the plaza as they listened to speeches and music. Petitioners garnered signatures from march participants while voting rights advocates urged people to get out and vote. Speakers encouraged people to not only join in unity on Martin Luther King Jr. Day but to also take action to ensure equality in their own communities. 
“I haven’t been in Asheville very long, so it was very nice to be invited to celebrate this holiday with the community and to be a part of a remembrance of the kind of things that got us many of freedoms that we have now, even with this bit of cold. This weather is inconsequential compared to what folks had to endure when marching for real,” said UNC Asheville’s provost Garikai Campbell. “One of the things I think is easy to lose sight of is just how important Martin Luther King Jr’s contributions are, just how misunderstood they are now. When I think about this day, I think about the fullness of his thinking, his philosophies, his hope for eradicating the three evils–racism, poverty, and war. Too many reduce King to ‘I have a dream’, diminishing his breadth and the trajectory of his thinking; the holiday is a moment to be reminded of the whole King.”

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