Dr. Oralene Anderson Graves Simmons, internationally recognized lifetime civil rights leader, is the award-winning visionary founder of Asheville’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Prayer Breakfast and distinguished recipient of the national MLK Commission’s “Making of the King Holiday Award” presented to her by Mrs. Coretta Scott King. Ms. Oralene Simmons speaks and teaches widely, inspiring audiences locally, nationally, and globally, about her journey in civil rights along a path of non-violence in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Her memoir, a book based on her inspirational lectures about her life, titled Journey to Myself, is scheduled for publication in 2018.
A native of Western North Carolina, where she’s been a pioneer in the civil rights movement since her school days, Ms. Simmons is longtime president of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County and former co-chair of the North Carolina State Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday Commission. For her pioneering civil rights work in the early 1960s, especially for her singular and courageous role in integrating the traditionally all-white Mars Hill College in 1961, Ms. Simmons first gained worldwide recognition when she was featured as a young leader in both Jet and Time magazines and later was honored with Mrs. Coretta Scott King at the United Nations headquarters in New York City in 1990.
Ms. Simmons is the great-granddaughter of Joseph Anderson, a slave who was held as collateral to guarantee a loan used to build Mars Hill College (now University) in Mars Hill, NC in 1856. One hundred and five years later, Oralene Graves became the first African American student enrolled at the college; since then, her daughter and granddaughter have also become alumnae. While she was in high school, bused from her home in Madison County to school in Buncombe County, Oralene Simmons was a member of ASCORE (the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality), an organization comprised of young black and white students working together for integration in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Ms. Simmons is the recipient of numerous other distinguished honor awards, including “Most Outstanding Young Women of America” and most recently the Leadership Asheville Forum’s annual “Circle of Excellence Award” for community leadership and lifetime service. In 2016 she received North Carolina’s most distinguished “Order of the Long Leaf Pine,” as well as the Asheville Citizen-Times’s 2016 “Women Making History Award/Women Who Have Changed Asheville.” She was named one of “Asheville’s Living Treasures” in 2015, and the Buncombe County Commission named April 11, 2015 “Oralene Simmons Day” in recognition of her dedication to human rights and dignity.
As the founding inspiration for the Martin Luther King, Jr., Annual Prayer Breakfast held each January in Asheville since 1982, when she worked as director of the Montford Community Center, where the first four breakfasts were held. In 1990 NC Gov. James G. Martin appointed Mrs. Simmons to co-chair the state Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission, and two years later the federal MLK Commission honored her with the “Making of the King Holiday Award,” presented by Mrs. Coretta Scott King. Later, in the early 1990s, Ms. Simmons was also instrumental in the development dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Park in Asheville, and she served as chairperson for the fundraising and erecting of the MLK statue in the park.
After leaving the Montford Center in 1997, Ms. Simmons led the YMI Cultural Center as a nonprofit organization under contract with Asheville Parks & Recreation. Since her retirement as a Cultural Arts Supervisor after 27 years of service, she has been active with the restoration committee for the Anderson Rosenwald School in Mars Hill and as a public speaker. She studied Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation at the University of Rhode Island, and in 2017 she was awarded an Honorary Associate of Applied Science Degree in Community Relations from Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. In the spring of 2018 Mrs. Simmons became Dr. Simmons, with the bestowal of an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Lenoir-Rhine University’s graduate program in Asheville, NC.
The MLK Association of Asheville &
Buncombe County, Inc.
PO Box 328
Asheville, NC 28802-0328
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