Hundreds convene in Durham for prayer breakfast honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Jim Thornton/Durham Herald-Sun

Hundreds gathered in Durham Monday morning for the 43rd Triangle Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Prayer Breakfast, a celebration of the renowned minister and activist whose assassination almost 55 years ago catalyzed the civil rights movement.

The celebration, a longstanding Triangle tradition, has often attracted the state’s most prominent politicians, faith leaders and activists. The theme of this year’s program was “Beloved Community.” Its speakers explored one of King’s fundamental mantras: “nonviolence as a way of life.”

“This is our hope and prayer for the Triangle and beyond: Not one life will be lost on our watch,” said the Rev. William Lucas of Durham’s First Chronicles Community Church. “We got the assignment from Dr. King.”

Lucas introduced the breakfast, which featured several speakers and performers at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel on Emperor Blvd. The event was organized by the Triangle Martin Luther King Jr. committee, which also organized a march in downtown Raleigh later Monday morning.

The 2023 breakfast program was a “labor of work,” Lucas said, as the typically annual event resumed after a three-year pandemic hiatus.

“As much as our world has changed in the last three years, the essential struggles and challenges that Dr. King laid forth in the 1960s and laid down his life for still remain,” he said.

After his comments, Lucas led the room in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a song by James Weldon Johnson that Lucas called one of the most important of the civil rights movement. The early 20th Century hymn gained new popularity in 2020 following George Floyd’s murder by a white police officer in Minneapolis.

Raleigh’s Dr. Gregory Howard, dean of the Shaw University Divinity School and the morning’s keynote speaker, said examples like Floyd’s should serve as a reminder that the civil rights movement’s mission is still current. King’s unceasing resolve to hold Washington accountable for its “broken promises” should motivate modern activists to keep holding this country accountable, Howard added.

Marcus Anderson, a Grammy-nominated saxophonist, played a tribute to King. The acclaimed musician, who has toured with Prince and CeeLo Green, also owns a coffee shop in Rocky Mount and might be the first jazz artist to create his own comic book, according to his website.

Kyler Vaughan, a 7th grader at East Wake Academy in Zebulon, first attended the MLK Jr. prayer breakfast when she was four years old. She spoke Monday about how to reduce violence in her community, listing protests, social media and parental example as keys to promoting progress.

“Speak up. Protest. Spread the Word,” she said.

For her activity as a local organizer, Donna Carrington, executive director of the Community Empowerment Fund in Durham, was awarded the 2023 King Leader Award and given a $7,500 check.

“I wake up every day and it’s about what can I do for my family, what can I do for my world…” Carrington said. “I love being in our community. I love working with people. I love figuring out the problems.”

Several faith leaders urged listeners to overlook their differences and work toward a common goal: overcoming the racial injustice that still lingers more than half a century after King’s death. Though many represented different religions, they shared similar messages.

Shakil Ahmed Ameer, from the Islamic Association of Cary, and Rabbi Matthew V. Soffer, from Durham’s Judea Reform Congregation, led prayers for justice and peace. The Rev. Paul L. Anderson led a prayer for the vulnerable and suffering. And The Rev. Marcos Leon-Angulo of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh said his career was heavily influenced by the first Black Catholic priest in the Diocese of Raleigh, who marched in the civil rights movement.

In a video speech, Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neill said King invented the phrase “fill up the jails” during a visit to the city’s White Rock Baptist Church.

“Over the last three years, we have experienced many things that could leave you disheartened, from a global pandemic to our economy and violence plaguing our neighborhoods,” O’Neill said. “I believe in the same God Dr. King did and I know that he has ultimate control of what we may encounter.”

Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin, in another video, said “things have gotten out of control,” but that King’s example can inspire positive change.

“People are angry instead of showing love and compassion,” she said. “Let’s honor Martin Luther King by living the best life we can.”