Hundreds gathered for the 23rd annual Community Unity Breakfast to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s impact and focus their community-driven efforts on diversity for the future.
The event, put on by the the City of Greenville and the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce, was held in Harvey Hall at East Carolina University’s Murphy Center. Guests were treated to a breakfast buffet before the program began.
In his greetings, Mayor P.J. Connelly spoke about what the annual tradition meant for Greenville.
“For 23 years now, the Community Unity Breakfast has given us an opportunity to honor the legacy of Dr. King and celebrate diversity,” Connelly said. “All are welcome in Greenville and the city offers something for all.”
Community Unity Committee chair, Toya Jacobs, kicked off the day’s events with an opening welcome and introduced the speakers and musical performances. The first speaker was Muriel Jones-Hines of St. Peters Missionary Baptist Church. In her opening prayer, Jones-Hines asked for guidance and encouragement for the community. She emphasized that meaningful change was a process and it has been going on before now and will continue to happen.
“Dr. King had a dream and that dream had a vision long before 2020,” Jones-Hines said.
Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce board chairman Chris Padgett promoted the Grow Local initiative the chamber launched in 2019 that matched high school students in the community with local businesses for potential career opportunities down the line. The chamber announced its plans to expand the program to 3,500 students this year.
Community involvement and equity were central themes of the breakfast. Speakers advised guests to think of these issues on a smaller scale.
“It cannot be a societal issue,” CEO of Vidant Health, Dr. Michael Waldrum, said. “It has to begin at the individual level.”
Chris Hopkins, lead pastor of Reimage Church, echoed a similar sentiment, focusing on how people view themselves in relation to racial problems today. He championed an approach aimed at highlighting good qualities about people, rather than trying to minimize the harm.
“Let us define ourselves by what we are, not by what we don’t want to be defined as,” Hopkins said.
The event culminated with keynote speaker Chris J. Suggs. Suggs is the founder and CEO of Kinston Teens Inc., a nonprofit organization for youth empowerment and community development in Kinston.
Suggs has been involved in community organizing most of his life through his family and life experiences. He tied the event’s focus on Dr. King’s message to his own organization’s goals to inspire young people to get involved.
“Young people have always been at the forefront of change,” Suggs said. “We face challenges and inequities in our communities that we must address.”
Suggs also took the opportunity to offer advice to those unsure of what sort of meaningful difference they can make.
“You’re right here in this time and at this moment because some higher power sees something you can do,” Suggs said. “All we have to do is look around at the blueprints and foundations laid by Dr. King and others.”
About 100 people marched from Thomas Foreman Park to the Pitt County Courthouse on Monday to take a stand against racism, a broken criminal justice system and poverty in the name of Martin Luther King Jr.
The annual King holiday march was organized by the Pitt County Coalition Against Racism, the Pitt Chapter of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Don Cavellini of Greenville, co-chairman of the Coalition Against Racism, said on the courthouse steps that one in five Americans are “survivors” of the American criminal justice system, which means they spent at least one day or night in jail. He said the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world.
“This country talks about other countries. Our government says that there are more prisoners in undemocratic countries, and you know who they say, but the truth be told, it’s the United States of America that is guilty of mass incarceration,” he said.
There are many events hosted on Martin Luther King day to honor the slain civil rights leader, but very few that acknowledge the true nature of his legacy, which was fighting social and economic justice, Cavellini said.
Appointed and elected officials call Greenville an inclusive city, but it is not, he said. There is a different justice for white and black people, and young black males and females are not respected by the police, he said.
Cavellini said he has been participating in the march for three years because Martin Luther King’s work is not done.
“Yes, most people remember that he had a dream, but right now we’re living in a nightmare. We may just have no Earth for our grandchildren if we don’t do something about climate change, we will have millions of people staying in prison for crimes related mostly to drug use. That has to change,” Cavellini said.
CAR organizer Dedan Waciuri of Greenville railed against a programs that gives police access to military equipment to “wage wars” on black communities, he said.
Waciuri said the 10th Street Connector project that bought out and razed west Greenville properties so people wouldn’t have to drive through “the hood” was an act of violence.
“We have to understand that our movement is greater, is far more greater than what they perceive it to be on TV. Martin Luther King had a dream, yes he had a dream, but when he died that dream lives through us. We have to continue that dream,” Waciuri said.
Teresa Pritchard of Washington said her son was pulled over by a police officer in Washington, N.C., for not having his lights on. Pritchard’s son ran and was shot by the officer, she said. She called for the tapes to be released to the public and asked for support.
“He (the officer) could’ve tased him or anything, but he chose to kill him because they had altercations before, and I say that I want justice for my son, I need everybody’s support to help me get justice,” Pritchard said.
Volunteer for the New Day Outreach Center, Debbie Anderson of Grimesland, said many Americans are not able to afford health care or medications and rely on food banks for their next meal.
“Dr. King fought for the poor and the low-income people within our society. We need to do the same. All families deserve access to basic living standards like free health care, food, housing, decent wages so that we can all feel comfortable,” Anderson said.
Self-employed musician Lee Tate of Grifton participated in the march for the first time this year. He said Martin Luther King day meant many things to him but ultimately meant unifying people.
Tate said he usually spends Martin Luther King day the way he spends every day: being the best version of himself and learning more about other people.
“Respecting people, cultures and finding out what makes them them,” he said. “Everybody’s beautiful to me, and his whole thing was ‘we are the people, we hold the power and we need to exercise that power.’ This is supposed to be the land of the free, we’re supposed to have freedom of speech and it feels like all of that is being taken away but MLK stood for just that — unification of everybody.”
The vision of unity and inclusion championed by Martin Luther King Jr. is one that leaders in Pitt County hope to actualize, even if it requires “grace for the struggle” to get there.
To aid in that effort, hundreds of people came out to the sixth annual Interfaith Clergy Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in Stokes at the St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church Soul Saving Station on Briery-Swamp Road.
The service was sponsored by the Interfaith Clergy of Pitt and Martin Counties, a multi-cultural, multi-racial network of area ministers working to unify others through reconciliation and constructive dialogue.
The riffs of an organ, the strumming of guitars and the beating of drums reverberated as hands clapped, feet stomped and hands waved in a community church service where race, religion and politics were cast aside to make way for a more inclusive Greenville and Pitt County.
Pitt County Sheriff Paula Dance gave thanks to King and said it is because of him that she is where she is today.
“I stand here today as a testament to his dream,” Dance said. “It’s not easy and Lord knows I can testify to that, but (working for change) must be done. But most importantly, it can be done.
“We’ve got to come to the point that we are determined not to accept a lot of things that we’ve been accepting in the past,” Dance said.
This year’s theme was “Grace for the Struggle” and the event’s keynote speaker, Bishop Rosie O’neal of Koinonia Christian Center in Greenville, invigorated the crowd with a passionate sermon about King’s legacy.
“Today we celebrate a man whose dreams sparked social change and opened the door for social economic advantage for all people — what a dream that was,” O’neal said. “And perhaps he called it a dream because he could only see what he hoped for when his eyes were closed because things were so bad.
“But he forged ahead, unable to see but operating on diligence to what he had seen in his dreams,” she said. “And that’s one of the great things I think about having a dream.
“I’m glad that Dr. King pressed forward and that he allowed his dream to become a vision for us all,” O’neal said. “Now we can see some of the effects of that dream. And it is our responsibility to take up that vision and keep moving it forward.”
Actualizing King’s dream will require grace and action, she said.
“It’s going to take a strength that I’ll call grace,” O’neal said. “We’re going to need more than the ‘want to.’ We’re going to need more than the ‘how to.’ We’re going to need ‘the ability to’ and that’s what grace is, at least in part.”
Dismantling racism and intolerance is something that O’Neal said takes a special type of energy.
“It’s going to take an energy and a drive — that in and of ourselves I don’t know if we have — to be able to get to the point where we do more than tolerate racial differences and cultural differences but where we celebrate those differences,” she said. “And though I believe these services and times of remembrance of Dr. King and his work are vital — and I think should be considered irreplaceable — I don’t believe it’s enough for us to be able to forge the path of advancement.”
King’s dreams of a more inclusive America has everything to do with having a vision that includes persevering through pain and suffering.
“It’s going to take not just vision but it’s going to take a strength to keep moving with our hearts hurting,” O’neal said.
But grace in the struggle for freedom and equality is something that O’neal said is a gift from God.
“Grace is the continual expression of God’s favor and his enablement to do beyond what you really have the natural ability to do,” she said. “ Grace is when God is alive in me to the extent that I can do what I normally could not have done. I can receive what I really don’t deserve.
“Grace gives you the ability to press on when you don’t feel like you have any more press,” O’neal said. “Grace is what gives you what you’re going to need to make progress.
“We’re going to need something that is bigger than we are,” she said.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day meant a day off from classes or work for most people. But for approximately 250 students at East Carolina University, the national holiday acted as motivation to help others the Greenville community.
The university’s annual MLK Day of Service sent Pirates across the city and county to tackle a variety of volunteer tasks — from weeding in the community garden to sorting items for the local food pantry.
The day started on Monday morning, as students were welcomed into the new student center for a breakfast provided by the Ledonia Wright Cultural Center.
“MLK is not only an icon for the African American community, he is an icon for America in what perseverance and the desire for equity can bring — the desire to know what’s right and put your life on the line to get it — and he paid the ultimate price to make things better for a lot of people,” said Shaun Simon, the associate director of the cultural center.
Following breakfast, participants heard about the importance of following in King’s footsteps when it comes to service and acts of love.
Maya Pittman, a staff counselor and the coordinator of outreach and intercultural services for ECU’s Center for Counseling and Student Development, told the students events like Monday’s are important when it comes to becoming a part of the larger community.
“One of the things that I have found is that the easiest way to get into a community and show love to that place, establish connection and relationships, is through service,” Pittman said.
Pittman discussed five different love languages: physical touch, words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts and acts of service. She encouraged students to remember these languages wherever they ended up serving.
“When you think about all these love languages, acts of service is the most selfless love language of them all,” Pittman said. “So, when you are interacting, when you go out into the community and you recognize that there are people whose needs you are filling, understand you have to show them love in a way that they understand it, not the way that you understand it.”
Pittman also stressed the importance of keeping this service work up throughout the rest of their college career and throughout the rest of their life.
“Dr. King says life’s most persistent and urgent question is. ‘What are you doing for others?’ As you go out today, know that you are doing something not for yourself but for others,” she said.
Students split up into groups depending on which service site they were headed to for the day. According to Alex Dennis, the assistant director of ECU’s Center for Leadership & Civic Engagement and the organizer of the event, there were 13 different sites that students could choose from, including the Ronald McDonald House, Community Crossroads Shelter, MacGregor Downs Health & Rehab, the Food Bank of Central & Eastern N.C., ECU’s Purple Pantry, the RHA Howell center, the Boys & Girls Club, Stop Human Trafficking Now, Goodwill Community Foundation, the community garden, Oak Haven Assisted Living, the American Cancer Society McConnell-Raab Hope Lodge and Brookdale Assisted Living.
The acts of service each group provided ranged from playing bingo with assisted living residents to organizing clothing and other donations for nonprofit organizations, to packaging 35,000 pounds of sweet potatoes at the food bank.
Dennis said his office works closely with all these organizations year-round to make sure that they can post volunteer opportunities available for students. He said events such as the day of service give students a pre-planned and easy way to volunteer, as well as bringing awareness to some of lesser-known volunteer organizations.
“It’s great for them, because they are able to get students in and tell them about their site and their mission and what they do,” Dennis said. “This is a really easy way for students to get some volunteer hours under the belt, get their feet wet with volunteering in general, and then hopefully while they are at their site they are like ‘Oh, I really like this site, and I want to come back’.”
Dennis said he saw an increase in student participation. There were approximately 100 more students volunteers this year than in 2019, he said.
Cassandra Mateo, a sophomore human development and family science major, returned to volunteer at the event for a second year.
“I think it helps you grow as a person and I think it helps other people, who are going through something you are not, help grow as well,” Mateo said.
Marina Hobday, a senior sociology major, also was a returning volunteer. She said this was her third year participating in the event and that she has enjoyed being able to go to a different site every year. Hobday encouraged students to remember that as fun and rewarding as the day of service is, to volunteer on a regular basis.
“A lot of these places need continuous volunteering,” she said. “It’s a good intro, but it needs to continue to have an impact after.”
While many people participate in this event by themselves, some of the volunteers come in groups to make the experience one they can share with their friends.
Alexandria Dobill, a sophomore sociology major, attended with several of her teammates from the ECU rugby team, who helped with weeding in the community garden.
“We are just trying to help the community and do it as a team,” Dobill said. “There are so many opportunities to find groups of people and once you find your little group that you love to be around, you can do just about anything. I mean we are out here in the freezing cold but we are still having fun.”
Whether volunteering as individually or as a group, students who were serving on Monday were not alone.
“It’s a large day of service not just for colleges and universities, but for communities all over the nation,” Dennis said. “There will be millions of people volunteering today and so it’s just our little way of remembering Dr. King.”