As YMCA’s MLK event turns 30, there’s fatigue, frustration and much hope in Charlotte

Ask Omega Autry how life has changed for Black people in Charlotte in the three decades since she helped co-found the Greater Charlotte YMCA’s MLK Holiday Celebration, and she gives an answer that might surprise you.

Then again — depending on your point of view — it might not.

“Not much,” replied the Marshville native, a 1973 graduate of Johnson C. Smith University and a longtime local community activist and Y supporter who today is one of the organization’s most influential Black trustees. “I think the politically correct answer to that would be, ‘Oh, yes, we’ve changed and we’ve grown a lot.’ The talk is there, but behind the scenes, it hasn’t changed much, sadly.”

Yet on Monday morning in the Crown Ballroom inside the Charlotte Convention Center, Autry joined approximately 1,200 others for the 30th anniversary of the breakfast event. Not just to sit and listen, but to actively participate. She presented a YMCA diversity award to Charlotte business leader Bill Allen for his support of programs for children with physical and cognitive disabilities at the Keith Family YMCA in northeast Charlotte.

She still thinks substantial change is possible, and that one never knows when or how the Greater Charlotte YMCA’s celebration of Dr. King — created by her and fellow members of the McCrorey YMCA’s board in 1995 — might serve as a catalyst for that change, she said.

“It’s just one event,” Autry said in an interview prior to the event, “but what happens in that room is what would inspire one to have hope...

“Once a year we focus on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King. ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ This man who knew that he was close to death. I don’t think his focus was: I’m saying this because I want to have a legacy and a dream that they can talk about at a prayer breakfast 30 years from now.

“But I think he had a giving-up in his soul that: Even though it might cause me my death, I’m still gonna stand. It’s that kind of fortitude that has to have its place, so we do not stop crying out for social justice. For what is right.”

It was that kind of persistence, resolve and hope in the face of frustration that attendees of the uptown event heard in the passionate keynote speech delivered by Tonya Matthews, president of the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina.

“These are indeed tough times,” said Matthews, a Johns Hopkins- and Duke-educated engineer and a critically acclaimed poet. “Many if not all of Dr. King’s tenets of freedom, justice and community are being challenged on a daily basis.

“So, one might assume that those of us who are in the work — those of us who are pushing the great rock of equity up the even greater mountainside of inclusion, those of us who are working to unify our community, those of us that show up to breakfast at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning — might just be a little tired; perhaps a bit discouraged; and, without question, somewhat frustrated.

“Should we do what we have been doing? Should we do something new? Should we just sit still and let a few of these things implode on their own and volunteer to clean up after that? If I am already tired, should I even be doing any of this at all? My task this morning is to put the work, the light, the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the context of our today, in a way that motivates, that lifts, that charges, that renews, that holds accountable those of us who show up at breakfasts like these,” Matthews said.

Keynote speaker Dr. Tonya Matthews, President and CEO of the International African American Museum, delivers a speech during the 30th Annual McCrorey YMCA MLK Holiday Breakfast at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte. Isaiah Vazquez/Special to the Observer
Keynote speaker Dr. Tonya Matthews, President and CEO of the International African American Museum, delivers a speech during the 30th Annual McCrorey YMCA MLK Holiday Breakfast at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte. Isaiah Vazquez/Special to the Observer

The breakfast’s beginnings

There’s a little bit of a debate about how large the first gathering was back in 1995, when it was held in the atrium of what was then the First Union bank’s building.

William “Butch” Simmons, also among the 13 McCrorey Y board members who co-founded the breakfast, remembers it as hosting 260 to 275 people. Omega Autry, meanwhile, thinks it was much, much smaller, perhaps fewer than a hundred folks.

But everyone agrees it was time to do something to celebrate Dr. King, since the observance had been signed into federal law in 1983 and was recognized as a paid holiday in the state of North Carolina in 1987. On top of that, the board was looking for a flagship fund-raising event for its McCrorey YMCA, a Beatties Ford Road branch established as a Y for African Americans in a segregated South in 1936.

Chuck Stone, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen and a noted Black journalist who at the time was teaching journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, was brought in as the first featured speaker.

“We walked away from that not so much pleased about the number of people who attended,” Autry recalled, “but pleased that we as a board sponsored that ourselves, without depending on the Greater Charlotte YMCA. So we just moved ahead. Once you start recognizing Dr. Martin Luther King, how do you not do it the next year?”

It would go on to outgrow the atrium and multiple hotel ballrooms and ended up in the cavernous Crown Ballroom, which has hosted since 2013 save for two years during the pandemic. Now an official Greater Charlotte YMCA presentation, it still raises money for a variety of McCrorey Y-specific programs.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the early incarnations of the YMCA’s MLK celebration and this one, however, involve who it reaches.

In the mid-’90s, Simmons said, “we were beginning to get more cultures, different cultures, coming into the community. But we were still basically a Black and white community — and the majority of the attendees came from our community. The Black community... Now, when I look at the attendees at the breakfast, I see people of all colors, all races, all religions, all backgrounds, and I think it’s more reflective of this community.

“I think it lends to the community and the ideals of Dr. King, where it’s much more of an inclusive celebration.”

Butch Simmons, Alfred Alexander and Omega Autry stand together following the 30th Annual McCrorey YMCA MLK Holiday Breakfast at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, NC on January 15, 2024. Isaiah Vazquez/Special to the Observer
Butch Simmons, Alfred Alexander and Omega Autry stand together following the 30th Annual McCrorey YMCA MLK Holiday Breakfast at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, NC on January 15, 2024. Isaiah Vazquez/Special to the Observer

‘It ain’t time to sleep yet’

In her keynote speech, Tonya Matthews was all-inclusive in her plea to the crowd to continue fighting for social justice.

She referenced a lesser-known sermon King gave in Cincinnati in 1967, when he proclaimed, “It is… midnight in our world, and the darkness is so deep that we can hardly see which way to turn.”

Matthews used his message from that sermon the way he did. In one breath, she referred to attendees as those who were — and should be — calling for action.

“This is what 8 a.m. breakfasts in convention centers on MLK day are for. We are here to acknowledge and to remind ourselves that the work is to continue to relentlessly knock on the doors at midnight, because someone else needs us to. And that’s the only way the door will ever open, and that is why we’re tired. We are not tired because we don’t have hope. We are tired because we do. And that’s what makes movements move.”

In the next breath, she referred to attendees as the people who needed to answer that call for that action.

“You get to the door and discover that your neighbor is not even knocking to ask for help for him, or her, or themselves. Your neighbor is asking for help for someone you don’t even know. Bread for some stranger,” Matthews said.

And one might ask, “‘Can I just give my neighbor some bread and go back to bed?’… (But) we have more responsibility than simply giving our neighbor the loaves of bread requested. We are called to help serve the bread that we’re giving up. We are called to educate ourselves and understand where the need for the bread came from in the first place, and who it is we are going to serve, so that we are better prepared for the next knock on our door.”

In conclusion, she said, “I hope that when the dawn comes, we are still just a little tired, a little blurry eyed, a little un-sure-footed, taking in more than our fair share of coffee, because we have been up since midnight knocking on doors, serving bread, doing the work...

“I, for one, look forward to continuing to knock — dare I say bang — on doors at midnight, as we welcome in the next dawn. It ain’t time to sleep yet.”

With that, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, U.S Rep. Alma Adams and Mecklenburg County Commissioner George Dunlap and more than a thousand others rose to their feet to give Matthews a standing ovation.

Those at the table reserved for the events co-founders stood perhaps most proudly of all.

One of them — Alfred Alexander, whose home was bombed by someone trying to stifle the civil rights movement in Charlotte when he was a boy in 1965 — said he too hopes the city never tires of at least trying to make itself a better, safer place for its citizens. “Even if you’re thinking about something just momentarily, at least you’re thinking. I mean, anything positive makes a difference. And gets us in a different direction… of the way we do things, the way we think, the way we care.

“It’s all about caring for each other,” he said. “We can’t get away from that. If we get away from that, we’re lost.”

Drums 4 Life member Rajuma Bey plays the jembe drums during the 30th Annual McCrorey YMCA MLK Holiday Breakfast at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, NC on January 15, 2024. Isaiah Vazquez/Special to the Observer
Drums 4 Life member Rajuma Bey plays the jembe drums during the 30th Annual McCrorey YMCA MLK Holiday Breakfast at the Charlotte Convention Center in Charlotte, NC on January 15, 2024. Isaiah Vazquez/Special to the Observer