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Unity Breakfast, march show Lexington at its best

I'm not usually an early riser, so it's never easy to get out of bed when the alarm rings before dawn on that Monday in mid-January. It is a holiday, after all, and almost always bitterly cold.

I get up because the Unity Breakfast and downtown march that begin Lexington's annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday commemoration are among my favorite events each year.

In addition to plenty of coffee, the breakfast includes awards for outstanding citizens, speeches about the ideals King preached and musical performances. One performer is always a child — an amazingly talented child.

When Alpa Phi Alpha fraternity started hosting the breakfast 15 years ago, it was a small affair and there wasn't much unity — few whites attended. "Where are the rest of the white people?" retired Herald-Leader columnist Don Edward wrote after the second breakfast in 1996.

More than 1,300 people filled Heritage Hall for the breakfast Monday. Lexington's leading citizens of all races were there, as were representatives of central Kentucky's major institutions and corporations. The crowd was smaller than in recent years, because many people were in Washington for a much bigger celebration.

After the breakfast, more than 1,000 people walked a cold, windy circle around downtown. As usual, it was a throwback to the Civil Rights marches of the early 1960s, with lots of banners and the singing of spirituals and protest songs such as We Shall Overcome.

The march is now about brotherhood and unity, rather than protest and defiance. It is Lexington at its best, with everyone showing what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

City officials and university presidents marched beside businessmen, workers, and groups from churches, schools and civic organizations. Asbury Theological Seminary was represented, as was the American Civil Liberties Union. Lexington Fairness, which crusades against discrimination based on sexual orientation, was there, marching right behind The Lexington School. Many parents brought their children for a civics and history lesson.

Jennifer Caravello, a teacher at Leestown Middle School, brought her son Dylan, 6. As they walked, she explained to him that the march was to remind people that everyone has equal rights. "I didn't want him to leave thinking we had just walked around in a circle," she said.

A generation ago, police in some Southern cities beat and turned hoses on civil rights marchers. Now, they block traffic for them. Lexington Police Chief Ronnie Bastin and his senior officers marched. Bastin said 56 Lexington officers were in Washington, helping with crowd control for the inauguration. "We had more who wanted to go than could go," he said.

The marchers began outside Heritage Hall, just east of the home where Mary Todd Lincoln grew up. They walked east on Vine Street, then crossed on Rose Street and went west on Main Street. They passed Cheapside, once one of the South's biggest slave auction blocks. They passed the former site of Woolworth's, where black students staged sit-ins to demand service at the lunch counter in the early 1960s. And they passed the former site of the Phoenix Hotel, where trumpeter Louis Armstrong once played — but wasn't allowed to spend the night.

Tuesday's inauguration of Barack Obama added magic to the festivities. Many blacks said that, for the first time, they see hope that King's dream of true equality may be possible.

"This is Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream right now — Obama becoming the first African-American president," said Michelle Brown, who marched with a big smile and an Obama-Biden yard sign. "This is a very special day."

"I can't wait for tomorrow," said Robin Bond of Lexington. "There's a change in the way people are feeling. They're excited to see an African-American president."

Bond carried a homemade sign that summed up the thoughts of many marchers, black and white. On one side it said: "Pray for Obama. It's no longer a dream." On the other side: "Dr. King, thank you for sharing your dream.

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