Birmingham’s MLK Unity Breakfast
March 21, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
“Michael, we got a problem with the MLK holiday,” said Odessa Woolfolk over the phone. I put the downtown report I was revising to the side of my desk. I was surprised that an African-American member of my Executive Committee had any concerns at all about the creation of the holiday. It was shameful that it took fifteen years for congress to act.
“I don’t understand. You signed the letters from Operation New Birmingham and our Community Affairs Committee to congressional representatives letters advocating the national holiday for several years.”
“The problem is that every civil rights group in town is planning a dinner on the MLK holiday. They’ll all want the Mayor, President of the City Council, Reverend Shuttlesworth, and everyone else in Birmingham who worked with Dr. King at their head table. Corporate leaders and business folks will be pulled in all directions. They won’t know what to do,” said Odessa.
“Yeah, I can see it. Every group will try to make it an annual fundraiser. Big bucks for chicken, mashed potatoes, and cream peas, but we can’t stop them from honoring Dr. King’s memory.”
“A couple of banquets are already in the planning stages. I talked to some of my people, and we think Birmingham should have one big event to properly celebrate the holiday. A lot of the Civil Rights Movement happened here, but it may be too late,” said Odessa.
“How about a luncheon? Or a breakfast?” I suggested.
“Maybe we can bring everyone together at a breakfast. Make it an integrated event and call it the Unity Breakfast,” Odessa said. “It could be affordable. We don’t need to make money
— just cover costs.”
“OK. How do we get everyone to come to our event instead of having their own?”
“They could still do their own luncheon, dinner, march, prayer service or whatever, but we’ll get everyone to come to our breakfast. For starters, let’s make them co-sponsors and ask their members to volunteer. ONB would have to coordinate the Unity Breakfast since most of them don’t have full-time staff,” suggested Odessa.
“We’ll need their volunteers, but we definitely want to manage the finances and issue a full accounting,” I said.
“Great! I’ll tell the leaders their people will be fully involved in this event and ask each group to name two representatives to a breakfast committee. Don’t worry,” she added with a chuckle, “I’ll be the chair and the tie breaker. If you and Aaron Carlton of your staff can work on a venue, mailing list, budget, and the logistics, we can make the first MLK holiday a proud day for Birmingham.”
The first Martin Luther King, Jr Holiday, January 19, 1986, was on a crisp, clear day. About 270 people in their Sunday-best stepped off the elevator on the17th floor at the Relay House, a large glass-enclosed dining room at the top of the Bank for Savings Building. The business community was well represented.
Many of those in attendance had not surveyed the city from such a height. They pointed out Legion Field, Parker High, Kelly Ingram Park, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and City Hall. In 1963, Dr. King’s marches to City Hall began at the park and Bull Connor blocked them with snarling dogs, powerful fire hoses, and hostile police. Two decades later, Ricard Arrington sat behind the desk in the mayor’s office in City Hall and the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Breakfast was convening to celebrate Dr. King’s belated recognition with a national holiday.
After everyone was seated at tables with white tablecloths, the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Greater Birmingham Ministers, and ONB’s Community Affairs Committee took their places at the head table. Mayor Arrington and Congressman Ben Erdreich were on either side of Odessa, the emcee of the first annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Breakfast. A series of speeches, carefully balanced between Black and White speakers, cited the achievements of Dr. King and spoke with optimism about the challenges that remained in Birmingham and the nation. Odessa asked everyone to cross their forearms and take the hand of those next to them and join her in the anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.” Particularly moving was the refrain, “Black and white together, we shall overcome, someday.” The buildings of downtown Birmingham gleamed in the sunlight.”
In subsequent years, Aaron Carlton worked with the committee to manage the breakfast as it outgrew the Relay House, moved to the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center, and began to attract more than two thousand people. Parents and grandparents brought their children to share in the legacy of Dr. King. Corporations and church groups reserved tables. The event became obligatory for elected officials, prospective candidates, and those who aspired to be important members of the community. Birmingham’s celebration may have become the largest in the nation by the early 1970s.
Chairmanship of the breakfast rotated among the sponsors, but we always met at Reverend Abraham Woods’ church. He was one of Dr. king’s key lieutenants in 1963, long-time leader of SCLC, and the Birmingham spokesman for the civil rights.
NCCJ’s Cathy Friedman told the first meeting of the Breakfast Committee planning the 1996 event, “I look forward to working with all of you to make this year’s 10th MLK Unity Breakfast the best ever. We’ve enjoyed strong support from the corporate community, and that has enabled us to keep the admission fees low, but the Civic Center is raising the price for the breakfast and …”
“Mrs. Friedman, I don’t mean to interrupt, but I want you to understand that our people can’t afford any increase in the ticket price,” said Reverend Woods. “Your people may can pay more, but this breakfast is for all the people of our city.”
“Thank you, Reverend Woods. I certainly understand your point. I do not propose to raise the ticket price. In fact, I think we should consider a lower price for children. It’s so important for them to learn about Birmingham’s heritage and history.”
“Well said, Mrs Friedman,” replied Reverend Woods. “You know, I marched with Martin in ’63 and I’m sure he would want all of our people to be able to participate.”
“I agree. And, please, call me Cathy. My goal is to bring more donations from the business community. With the Civic Center increasing the price of the food, maybe a continental breakfast should be considered?” When this was met with silence, she thought maybe they aren’t familiar with that term so she continued with a smile, “Maybe some pastries, fruit and coffee?”
Reverend Johnston from Greater Birmingham Ministries, responded, “We need a full breakfast—eggs, muffins, and sausage. I know you don’t eat pork, but our people need their sausage. Now, you might leave off those grits. By the time they get served to 2,000 people, they’re cold and nasty.”
“You’re right. The grits are congealed, just terrible,” Cathy said without hesitation. “No more nasty grits.”
Reverend Johnston applauded briefly and others around the table offered a word or two of approval but insisted upon a full breakfast.”
“Now, Miss Cathy, you mentioned a speaker. You know that this body has to approve the speaker?” said Reverend Woods.
“I think you’ll be thrilled with the speaker I hope to propose to you at the next meeting.”
In the parking lot, Cathy confided, “An old friend from college is on the board of Big Brothers in New York with Harry Belafonte. Can you imagine him as our speaker?” She could barely contain herself.
“Oh my God. A key player in the history of the movement and someone who is speaking out today on national issues. Not just another veteran of the old days. He’ll also draw a big crowd and help pay for the increased cost of breakfast,” I replied enthusiastically.
At our next meeting, Cathy announced that Belafonte had agreed to speak at the Unity Breakfast. There were gasps followed by smiles. Reverend Woods said, “I will welcome Brother Belafonte as an old friend. I was in many meetings with Harry, Ralph, and Martin. Heh, heh, it will be like old times.”
“I have more good news! We have a pledge from a real estate developer for a $5,000 sponsorship of the breakfast. This will pay for the increased food costs and allow us to put some money aside in a CD,” said Cathy who beamed at those around the table.
After a few moments of silence, Reverend Johnston asked, “Just what does this real estate man want?”
“Well, he believes in civil rights, and he’s excited about Harry Belafonte’s appearance here. Of course, he would expect his donation to be acknowledged at the breakfast and in the program. I think we can get more contributions like this, keep the admission fee affordable, and create an endowment. It’s a great opportunity for us.”
Reverend Woods leaned back in his chair at the head of the table and said, “Miss Cathy, the Martin Luther King, Jr Unity Breakfast is not for sale. I know you’re trying to help us, but we know how to bring our people together. We do it every Sunday to praise the Lord God and we have the ability to come together to honor Dr. King.”
Before Cathy could respond, Aaron Carlton spoke up. “Reverend Woods, we’ve gone over the time scheduled for this meeting and some folks have other commitments. Let’s adjourn until next week.”
“Thank you, Brother Carlton, for that timely reminder. Now join me in prayer. Dear Lord…”
“Call me. I’ll be in my office in ten minutes,” said Cathy as she got in her car and slammed the door.
Our phone conversation continued for more than an hour. Cathy was very disappointed that Belafonte did not generate as much enthusiasm as she expected and a major donation was not welcomed with open arms. This was not what she expected in her first meeting.
After much discussion, she agreed to set aside the donation until the committee members got to know her better. I assured her that Belafonte was a huge coup and enthusiasm would build as word spread, but Reverend Woods and the committee members needed to accept Belafonte as their speaker. They want to take some credit for bringing the civil rights and popular entertainment icon to Birmingham. I mentioned that at ONB our mantra was “Credit is infinitely divisible; share it.”
Odessa quietly explored the donation with key members of the breakfast committee in the next few weeks and reported that they bristled at the idea the breakfast should accept charity from a white businessman, especially a “real estate man.” They associated real estate with landlords. The $5,000 donation never came before the Breakfast Committee again.
Cathy asked Reverend Woods, Reverend Johnston, and other committee members to announce Harry Belafonte at a press conference at the Civil Rights Institute. Lamarse Washington, the Director of NCCJ, and I made all the arrangements and prepared handouts with photos showing Belafonte with Dr. King in ’63. Reverend Woods welcomed the press and spoke at length about his close working relationship with Brother Belafonte. Finally he introduced Cathy as Breakfast Chair. She named the members of the Breakfast Committee made brief remarks about the event as a symbol of the Birmingham community coming together in unity.
I arrived at the Civic Center at 6 am as the Birmingham Police Canine Squad was completing their sweep of the hall for bombs. The sergeant in charge gave me the thumbs up sign. Aaron was getting the name cards distributed at the long two-tiered head table with thirty-three dignitaries and clergy representing the three protestant faiths, Catholics, Jews and Muslims. Soon musicians and choir members were taking their places as part of the Unity Choir assembled for the occasion. Volunteer ushers familiarized themselves with the location of 350 reserved tables. At 7 am, music welcomed the early arrivals and the Huffman High School ROTC Honor Guard was quietly drilling behind the stage. The three high school students who won the essay contest on “Why Dr. King Matters Today,” had arrived with family and teachers.
At 7:25 am, Reverend Woods entered from behind the stage and took their places while the audience buzzed. Nearly two and a half hours later, the finale began. Harry Belafonte sang the first verse of “We Shall Overcome” a cappella in a clear, unwavering voice. The choir joined in on the second verse, and everyone added their voices as the sound swelled to fill the hall. Holding hands, swaying to the anthem of the Movement, the upturned faces conveyed the hope and promise of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Dream.