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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Pastor shares King’s dream and challenges youth

The Rev. Happy Watkins
The Rev. Percy “Happy” Watkins continues to speak.

The Rev. Happy Watkins will give Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 2015 Martin Luther King Day rally and march in Spokane, as well as throughout the community and region. 

The rally begins at 10 a.m., Monday, Jan. 19, at the Spokane Convention Center.

For many years, he served on the Martin Luther King Day planning committee with Ivan Bush and on the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center board.

Two years ago, he gave the speech that day at the Idaho State House in Boise.  Last year, he did not come to the Spokane event.

“Some people thought I wasn’t doing it any more,” he said, “but I continue to do it.”

Many years, he would give it 20 to 25 times in the two weeks before Martin Luther King Jr. Day at elementary, middle and high schools, and universities.  Because he has had two knee replacement surgeries, he expects to speak just 15 times in 2015.

He has spoken at 12 high schools, six middle schools, three grade schools in Spokane and Spokane Valley, plus elementary, middle and high schools in Cashmere, Cheney, Chewelah, Clarkston, Colbert, Colville, Creston, Deer Park, Fairchild, Hunters, Medical Lake, Moses Lake, Pasco, Springdale and Wilbur in Washington, and Coeur d’Alene, Genesee, Lewiston, Post Falls, Rathdrum, Sandpoint, Spirit Lake and Boise in Idaho, and Portland, Ore.

He has also presented it at Holy Family, Deaconess and Sacred Heart Medical Centers and at Whitworth, Gonzaga, Eastern Washington and Washington State universities, the University of Idaho, Spokane Falls Community College, Spokane Community College and North Idaho College.

Happy, who is pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in Spokane, listed about 25 high schools, 10 middle schools, 20 grade schools and five area universities where he has spoken since first reading the speech in 1968 at Hutton Elementary School in Spokane. 

If his knee is okay, he will go to his home in the Bronx and preach the speech the second Sunday of January for his six living brothers and sisters, his many nieces and nephews, and the congregation at the Mt. Zion Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.

“Everywhere I go, I want to dispel the image this area has,” he said.

Beyond the words about King’s dream—that “one day” sons of former slaves and former slave owners would sit down at the table together, that valleys would be raised and mountains lowered, and that black and white boys and girls would hold hands—his message challenges people to work hard.

While some may think the dream is just for the hereafter and not to be realized on earth, Happy said that “we can continue to work for racial equality, as we worked to alleviate segregation and Jim Crow laws.”

Happy said King knew his death was on the horizon when he spoke April 3, 1968, in Memphis about having “been to the mountaintop and having seen the other side.”  He knew he would not get there with the people, but believed they would enter the Promised Land.

“Think of how people gave up their lives in the civil rights movement, trying to fulfill the dream here,” he said.

People have persisted in working hard to help young people be educated and find jobs, he said.

Speaking for the 2014 Juneteenth Day in Spokane at the Airway Heights Corrections Center, he saw more black men than there are in area universities, community colleges and trade schools.

Many tell him, “I didn’t listen to my Mom and Dad.”

Happy has met with men and women incarcerated at Pine Lodge and Geiger, as well as with men at Airway Heights.

“Hearing their stories, I realize that if they would focus on family, home and the kitchen table, it would reduce recidivism,” he said.  “We need to have young men and women go back to raising their families.”

On the day of the interview with The Fig Tree, he knew that 10 young men were waiting at the county courthouse to be sentenced.  They came from good families, from church families.

Dr. King’s message to young people was for them to be the best they can be,” said Happy, whose message to children and youth is for them to work hard in studies and at work, as King did.

“It’s not just a black dream.  It’s for all races.  It’s also about the fight for legalizing immigrants and respecting the first African American president,” he said.

Along with the “I Have a Dream” speech, he gives a message for young people.

“It comes down to family, home and the kitchen table,” Happy said.  “I talk about that everywhere.

“Our first and best teachers are our parents.  Our first school is our home.  Our most important piece of furniture in our house is the kitchen table.  Our houses are built of walls, but a home is built of love and dreams.”

Happy often asks children what the most important piece of furniture is.  It’s not the couch, computer, chair or bed.  It’s the kitchen table. 

He also asks children and youth what their goals are. 

At two Spokane Catholic schools, they were clear: vet, radiologist, CEO, dentist, doctor or scientist.  When he asked about student’s goals at a small town school, they said they wanted their parents stop to fighting or stop doing drugs.  Happy left crying.

In a North Idaho community, he found that a high percentage of teens were abusing alcohol, addicted to drugs or pregnant.  He told them that they can be what they want to be and urged them to start working for it.

Happy was heartened when a high school teacher in Sandpoint asked for his address, and a few days later a box arrived with 90 neatly typed letters from students telling him that his speech inspired them to want to finish school and go on to college.

“When I feel down, I read those, and it picks me up,” he said.

Another time, when he came into a school, a girl with Down syndrome broke away from her group to come over to hug him.  During the assembly, he called her to come up and said, “If the world saw through her eyes, what a wonderful world it would be.”

In Cashmere, he saw children of orchard owners going to school with children of Mexican workers.

By taking time to talk with children, Happy has done much to educate many generations of children over 46 years.

I want kids to know that somehow, someway, something will happen if they believe in themselves and work hard,” Happy said.

Families who gather around the kitchen table sit, talk and share life, stories and dreams, he said.

“I was the oldest of 10 children in a poor family in the Bronx.  My mother would cook lima beans, red kidney beans or pinto beans, and it was enough to feed us.  She told us to study, be good citizens and do the best we could.  Before we went to bed, she prayed.  Then she gave us each a spoonful of cod liver oil,” Happy said.

Spokane lacked the diversity he knew growing up, and he at first wanted to go back to the Bronx, but he decided to stay. 

Schools will start calling Happy in December to set up times in the first two weeks of January—as his health allows—for him to give the “I Have a Dream” speech and talk with children and youth.

“The dream has validity,” he said.  “We as people need to work together toward it.  We need to remember that the measure of men or women is where they stand in moments of challenges and controversies.”

For information, call 535-1336.

Copyright © December 2014 - The Fig Tree