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More than 150 attend Swain’s historic first MLK celebration

More than 150 people traveled from all over Western North Carolina to attend the first official Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Bryson City’s Historic Calhoun House on Jan. 21.

The turnout greatly exceeded what organizers had expected. The attendance was so large that the Historic Calhoun House in Bryson City was packed to capacity. Some guests had difficulty squeezing in to hear the presentation.

“It is important to note that a Martin Luther King Jr. event is not just about the number of participants, or who came out for the occasion,” said MLK Commission member Denise Tyson. “It is also about the interaction between members of our community and the unity and goodwill that results because of this interaction.”

The keynote address was given by Rev. George Allison, director of the North Carolina Martin Luther King Jr. Commission. Allison spoke about Dr. King’s legacy and the urgent need for continued advocacy for society’s disadvantaged members.

“We don’t need to just tolerate one another, we need to love each other,” said Allison.

A highlight of the celebration was a segment called “International Messages of Hope,” which featured Swain County residents reciting Martin Luther King quotes translated into other languages. Marie Junaluska, an Eastern Band of Cherokee Tribal Council member, started the segment with a Cherokee translation and discussion of the MLK quote, “We have learned to fly the air like birds.” Other quotes were given by Spanish teacher Kathy de Cano and Swain teacher John Mitchell. Rufina and Clucero Rasonabe, natives of the Philippines, quoted Dr. King and sang “We Are One” in their native dialect.

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Participation wasn’t limited to Swain County residents. Rep Phil Haire, D-Sylva, and Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, as well as Sylva Mayor Brenda Oliver all spoke at the event. Bridging Jackson Communities, a Sylva-based organization, also contributed significantly to the success of the event.

“Our goal was to emulate and build upon what Bridging Jackson Communities has accomplished in Jackson County,” said Tyson. “We’ve received a lot of support and guidance from our surrounding communities — Sylva, Cherokee, Asheville, Andrews and Waynesville. It’s inspirational to see neighboring communities come together like this to support a first time event in Bryson City. It is this type of cooperation that I believe Rev. Martin Luther King was talking about when he described his vision of ‘The Beloved Community.’”

The event proved to be a watershed moment for Asheville resident Julius McDowell, who returned to his native Bryson City for the first time in 50 years to attend the celebration. In 1957, McDowell and four other African-American students attempted to integrate Swain County High School. McDowell and the others were turned away by Principal L.H. Ballard and forced to ride a bus to Sylva to attend a segregated high school.

“You have to forgive,” said McDowell. “It is the only way we can grow.”

The Jan. 21 MLK event can been seen on the Internet by visiting the “Voices” section of the Swain MLK Commission’s Web site at:

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