Footstep after footstep crunched snow along Lexington’s downtown streets Monday morning to the subdued tune of “This Little Light of Mine.” The Rev. Michael A. Wilson’s voice rang out clearly in the crisp winter air as he led the crowd in song.
“This little light of mine,” he started.
“I’m gonna let it shine,” 500 participants sang, murmured or hummed back.
It was a smaller crowd than usual; the event typically attracts anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 participants each year, said Terry Allen, MLK march coordinator. Allen said this was expected, since the pre-march breakfast and post-march commemorative program activities are all virtual this year and the weather wasn’t great.
However, smaller numbers didn’t squash the march’s good spirits.
There were some familiar and notable faces among the crowd, including Gov. Andy Beshear and Lexington Chief of Police Lawrence Weathers. Dozens of police officers walked alongside participants of all ages through the emptied streets. The BLM flag and American flag waved side by side.
Fifteen minutes before the Freedom March’s 10 a.m. start time, participants began lining up several feet apart from each other on High Street, adjacent to Rupp Arena’s parking lot. As the march began, they walked along Vine Street, turned on Rose Street, and returned along Main Street, eventually dispersing at Triangle Park. A reflective quiet settled over the group throughout most of the mile-long route, only broken by Rev. Wilson’s song.
The Rev. Wilson said he began participating in the Freedom March when it relocated from UK’s campus to downtown in the 1980s. It’s been a huge success no matter which way you cut it, he said, from excellent speakers to crowds to entertainment.
“And of course, what's really been important, we've been able to keep alive the dream of Martin Luther King, you know at this point in our nation. That's so very important, is peace, unity, doing away with the divisiveness that's taken place,” Wilson said. “What it's about is understanding that we as a nation are better together.
Despite the cold and snowy weather, many college students made an appearance.
Keke McKinney, known for her role on the UK women’s basketball team, marched at a social distance from the crowd. She said that ever since the Unity March her teammates put on, she’s been looking for another opportunity to safely show her support for the Black Lives Matter movement and racial equality. When Jenna Mitchell, the former basketball coach’s wife, invited her, she decided it was important to come.
“(Martin Luther King Jr.) set the mark for us,” McKinney said. “He stood up for us. His beliefs are everything I believe in so he is somebody that I look up to, and we should continue to hold on to his legacy.”
Over a dozen Kentucky State University students also came, highly visible in their school’s green and gold. Dare, one of the students, said they came to show their presence as vocal student leaders.
“We’re really just trying to voice our opinions, just get out there and speak,” Dare said. “We don’t want to be hesitant, we don’t want to be quiet, we really just want to let everyone know how we feel.”
Another KSU student, Sabion Briggs, said that to this day, he believes MLK Jr. is living through us. The event means a lot to him because it’s part of his culture and his community’s history.
Christian White added that the question is not what MLK Jr. means to him, but what he has done for him.
“If he was still alive he’d probably still be doing it to this day and so us, as young individuals, as the new generation, it’s only right that we do this—white, black, anybody,” White said. “Because we are still fighting today and we all still share the same dream that he has.”
After the march ended, at 11 a.m., the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Planning Committee screened a documentary about the “African American quest for social justice from the Civil Rights era to our contemporary movement” on their YouTube channel in lieu of the usual commemorative program activities. The documentary, “Fire and Heart: A Blueprint for Liberation,” was produced by Lexington native Joan Brannon.
Allen said it is inspiring to see everyone come together from the local Lexington community and surrounding communities. He said the event, mostly sponsored by the Lexington-Fayette county government and the University of Kentucky, takes months of planning and dozens of volunteers.
While the planning committee chose to forgo many of the usual traditions for Covid safety, he said the one thing that will never change is their primary focus on commemorating MLK Jr.’s legacy.
“It's an opportunity to inspire and be inspired,” Allen said. “And it's an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to equal opportunity, human dignity, to the issues regarding respect, and the caring for each and every individual, and those issues have never changed over the years."
Toward the end of the march, participants were met by a sidewalk stand offering them free coffee and tea. It was one example of the quiet kindness that seemed to surround the march.
“There's a scripture that says, ‘so let your lights shine that all men might see your good works and glorify our fathers in heaven’” The Rev. Wilson said. “Go somewhere with somebody, say something to somebody that just kind of seems down, simple, letting your light so shine, so that things can change, and things can be the way they ought to be in this country.”
2020 was a year of struggle for racial equality. And yet, on a cold, bleak January morning, over 500 people came together to shine their lights as bright as ever.