Reverend Happy Watkins

As Americans honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., local leaders say it is important to keep pushing for change

If you haven't heard of Pastor Happy Watkins, chances are you haven't been to a MLK Day rally in Spokane.

A tradition lasting for more than three decades, Watkins recites Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech before the yearly march.

"My White grandma took us to these marches every single year," Nikki Jones, Spokane-NAACP Vice President, said. "She would ask how we felt when we heard that speech. We knew it was coming. That was our favorite moment."

For a man who has seen so much, 2020 and 2021 presented a first-time problem for the march's go-to speaker. The COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to cancel the yearly march and opt for a virtual alternative.

"These are different times," Freda Gandy, the executive director for the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center and MLK march organizer, said. "Normally, we're out there having our annual unity rally, and march, and a resource fair after that. But due to COVID all of that was cancelled."

Gandy opted for an alternative way to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Spokane. She felt there was too much that had occurred since the last holiday: nationwide and local Black Lives Matter protests, increasing conversations about racial equity, and an overall sense of growth and progress thorough the city of Spokane.

The MLK Family Outreach Center opted for several alternatives: a virtual 5k so people could individually march in honor of Dr. King, a food drive, and a book drive for children.

But there can't be a MLK day in Spokane without Pastor Happy Watkins, Gandy said. So, like many things in the COVID-era, Gandy took a tradition and virtualized it.

Watkins is the opposite of shy, but it's common knowledge that Watkins will shy away from one thing: talking about himself and his accolades. (It's even a personality trait specified in this profile on him from the Spokesman-Review.)

"He won't talk much about it, but he's taught me everything I know in terms of organizing a march, all the logistics. Happy (Watkins) has been there since day one," Gandy said.

Spokane-NAACP President Kiantha Duncan praised Watkins commitment and service to Spokane's community, noting she was "happy to follow behind" his footsteps. She credits Watkins for laying the foundation for local Black leaders in the Inland Northwest.

"I often wonder," Duncan said. "How must that feel to have seen so many iterations of this city evolve over the time you've been saying this same speech?"

Duncan said the Spokane Watkins started working in decades ago has evolved and progressed. Following along with the idea that bones are quicker to break then heal, Duncan believes Spokane "finally is getting a MRI."

"There is more conversation happening. There are more people talking about (racial injustice and racial inequity). More entities willing to engage in the conversation," Duncan said. "I don't want to minimize that at all because that actually is movement."

Other leaders with Spokane-NAACP agreed with Duncan's sentiment on progress and a roadmap to change.

"This summer, the school board passed the equity resolution," Nicole Jenkins-Rosenkrantz, Spokane NAACP Vice President and Spokane Public Schools Community Partnerships Manager, said. "I feel very hopeful that we can continue pushing on systems, both together collaboratively.

"With Better Health Together, we're making sure that we're continuing to push anti-racist training, deconstructing white supremacy, diversity-equity inclusion and how to actually walk out that process with a lot of resources with continual engagement," Kurtis Robinson, Spokane NAACP Vice President and Better Health Together Board Member, said.

Duncan also credited MultiCare, Providence, and the city of Spokane - specifically, Mayor Nadine Woodward.

"There are people in this city, at this time, who have said, 'I'm in. I'm in, I'm in,'" Duncan said. "'I'm in and what will it take? What does it need to look like? Let's figure it out.'"

Spokane City Councilmember Betsy Wilkerson also agreed with the overall sentiment of progress in the Lilac City, but also said it was on individuals to truly embrace change and "not hide behind organizations."

"It starts with each one of us individually. Have we really looked at ourselves and seen if we're stepping up to the call of what's been asked of us?" Wilkerson said. "Are we bold enough to call out injustice when we see it? That's when change comes."

Wilkerson also believes true change isn't possible without facing reality. That idea was present on Monday, when a Black Spokane man found several Neo-Nazi pamphlets in his Garland neighborhood.

Carlos Matthews said he walked out to take out the trash, when he found the white-nationalist pamphlet on his driveway.

"I looked down, grabbed it and I'm like, 'What the hell is this?'" Matthews said. "I was just like, 'Well, it is MLK Day and that's typically when these guys come out and do stupid (expletive) like this."

Matthews said he looks down the street and saw multiple pamphlets on front yards and driveways, leading him to believe the pamphlets were dropped off in the dead of night.

"I don't want to give them too much attention, but I would like to take this moment to send them a personalized message," Duncan said. "The flyers, the pamphlets, the intimidations factors, the fear tactics - none of it has worked. And it won't work."

"If we sit back and just be silent, that is more harm than that person out there just throwing those flyers out on the road," Wilkerson said, expressing her belief that ignoring the issue completely allows for similar acts and attitudes to continue existing.

"Unity and Love. Two very powerful tools that can change the world," she said.

Wilkerson, Duncan, Robinson, and Jenkins-Rosenkrantz believe the pamphlets were spread on MLK Day in an effort to take away the true meaning of the holiday: remembering the legacy and dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Robinson called it "an attempted hijack" of the holiday. He, and others, noted this wasn't the first time Spokane has seen something like this happen on Dr. King's holiday.

Ten years ago, a man placed a bomb on the route of the MLK march in downtown Spokane.

"Clearly he intended to detonate the device, cause mass carnage, and then survey the devastation,” FBI Special Agent Frank Harrill, who supervised the investigation, said. “Harpham was acting out against what he termed multiculturalism, but his hatred was firmly rooted in violent white supremacy. This was a prototypical hate crime.”

Gandy said she was about to speak at the 2011 rally, which was held before the march, when Spokane Police officers informed her they had found a bomb on the march route.

"I actually thought it was regarding the permit paperwork: something didn't get signed, something didn't get processed and I was about to be told we couldn't do the march in the streets of Spokane. It never occurred to me that I was about to be told there was a bomb planted along the march route," Gandy said.

The bomb attempt didn't stop organizers from holding future marches, Gandy said. In fact, more people have attended the rally, march, and resource fair every year since the 2011 incident.

"It shows here in Spokane that we are having the conversations about race. We are making an effort to address issues in our community. And we're not going to stand for hate in our community at that level," Gandy said.

Spokane's Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center is holding several virtual events for MLK Day 2021. To find out more and to participate, click here.

KHQ Local News Reporter

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