‘It’s a unity thing’

With an American flag tucked under his collar, James “Buddie” Williams shivered and smiled last night as he passed a chorus of singers at Columbus City Hall, en route to a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. at Veterans Memorial.

The 90-year-old resident of Westminster-Thurber Village joined a few hundred others as they marched over the frigid Scioto River and past the “Celebration of Life” sculpture depicting Arthur Boke Jr., Franklinton’s first black resident.

“It means a lot that I’m alive and that I’m here,” said Williams, who entered his tenth decade Nov. 23. “Most of the time you get to be my age and you lose it, your faculties, and end up in a nursing home.”

Wearing a cap to honor his infantry service in World War II and Korea, he enjoyed the 10-minute march. But it was the melding of race, age and nationality that appealed most.

“I thought it was wonderful, the whites and blacks — people as a whole — getting together,” he said. “We all bear each other’s burdens. It’s a unity thing.”

Last night’s march for Martin Luther King Jr. Day drew fewer people than usual, as did yesterday morning’s breakfast.

Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman, for example, spoke to the breakfast crowd by video. Frances Strickland, Gov. Ted Strickland’s wife, delivered her husband’s remarks because he couldn’t make it either.

The breakfast typically draws about 4,000 and is billed as the largest event of its kind in the country; yesterday’s count was nearer 3,000. That was expected, said O. Bert Castle, executive director of the Martin Luther King Breakfast Committee.

Coleman, Strickland and many of the others had gone to Washington, D.C., for Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration. So for this 24th year of the breakfast, Castle said the lower attendance was OK with him.

“Today we are remembering (King’s) legacy, and tomorrow, we will be able to experience it,” he said yesterday, walking the floor of the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

Nearly every speaker at the breakfast made some reference to Obama. Seiko Hostin, a senior at Columbus Alternative High School, talked about working the polls on Election Day, and how some people thought they would never see the day that a black man would be in the White House.

J. Alfred Smith, the California minister who served as keynote speaker, found reason to hope in today’s inauguration.

“With President Obama’s election, the waters of change are rushing to meet us,” he said. “Now is our time to go with the flow.”

Yesterday afternoon, more than 1,000 people jammed into the King Arts Complex to see singing and dancing performances, poet Sonia Sanchez and an exhibit highlighting King, Malcolm X and Bob Marley.

In one room, children were signing a poster that read, “We congratulate you, Mr. President!” then heading to a table to decorate paper dolls and finish sentences such as “I am celebrating Dr. King’s birthday because … ” and “I feel that Dr. King’s Dream is … ”

Williams, long retired as a janitor with Columbus schools and a mail sorter with the U.S. Postal Service, served 14 years in the military.

After last night’s march, he joined others at Veterans Memorial to watch the Djun’Kendafala Dance Company perform to the pulsing beat of African drums.

“You’re never too old to get out and participate,” Williams said. “I think young — that’s my source.”

Watching Obama sworn in today fulfills generations of hope, he said.

“I remember when I was a kid, this was not even in my dreams.”

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