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Next generation assumes roles for Martin Luther King Jr. Day

by Mary Stamp

MLK March 2013

Multiple generations march side-by-side between Jim Burford, who marched in Selma in 1965, and James Watkins, right, emcee for Sunday's service, a role his father, Happy Watkins, often fills.

Both at the Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative service and at the unity rally and march on Jan. 21, Spokane’s Police Chief Frank Straub Jr. apologized for the unfortunate role people in uniform played in the civil rights campaign, using German shepherds and fire hoses on crowds.  He also apologized for acts of police in unfortunate incidents in the City of Spokane.

He observed that police abuses viewed on TV news may have helped ramp up the civil rights movement.

Police Chief Frank Straub
Police Chief Frank Straub, Jr.



The new city police chief also pledged his commitment and the commitment of more than 270 police officers “to respond to crime with respect for everyone in the city.  We must continue to seek equality and justice for all,” he said.

“We will strive to serve the whole community and work with you,” Frank said. “We encourage your children to join the police department.”

At each occasion, Ivan Bush, retired school district equity officer and member of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Planning Committee for Spokane, commented that it

Ivan Bush, Cowan, F. Gandy
Ivan Bush introduces Sharon Cowan and Freda Gandy as co-chairs of planning for MLK Day


“takes a big person to say ‘I’m sorry.’”  Ivan also expressed his hope that “the words will become deeds that meet needs.”

Spokane Mayor David Condon offered a reminder that King led the civil rights movement and an education movement to build awareness that “injustice has no home here or anywhere” and that the day is a time to come together and celebrate the diverse backgrounds in Spokane.

Mayor David Condon
Mayor David Condon

Spokane City Council president Ben Stuckart said he has fond memories of 20 years of Martin Luther King Jr. Day marches, each year reminding him that “we have work to do” and that “we must strive to be better and see each other as brothers and sisters,” as those who gather work for love and peace each day, not just one day a year.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich called King “a true hero,” on par with Jesus and Gandhi, who addressed evil and who promoted three areas: education, justice and peace.

“King believed in education for all.  How would he see the current dropout rate of 30 to 50 percent in Spokane?” he said.  “King fought for education.  We blame teachers, but we need to look at ourselves as parents.

“There is one community in Spokane that graduates 100 percent of its people and 85 percent go on to college,” Ozzie said, pausing before revealing, “We need to shoot for the goals of the Hmong community.”

He said King also fought for justice, because the nation was formed to have “justice and liberty for all,” and has shed much blood for them.  “Justice is the car and the way we treat people is the road the car rides on,” he said, sad that he has to go to community centers to talk about bullying.  “The way we treat other people reflects on us as a society.”

King also wanted peace, Ozzie said.

LaRae Wiley
LaRae Wiley sings an honor song at the rally.

“He knew he would not see the end of the journey, but he had the courage to stand alone and dream of the day we would treat one another with respect,” he said.  “When I talk with youth, I say that the most important things are to learn to read and write, and to have a dream, because if we have a dream we have hope.”

He also informed people of a bill before the state legislature that says police officers are not to commit crimes while on duty and are not to lie.  He urged people to call their legislators to support that bill.

Another newcomer also spoke at the rally, Spokane School Superintendent Shelley Redinger, who said that King believed in a strong public education system.

“We seek to promote that,” she said, announcing that Rogers High School has worked to reduce its drop out rate, and as a result of efforts will graduate nearly 85 percent in June.  The principal’s goal is to graduate 95 to 100 percent.

King believed in education, pointing out that the function of education is to teach people to think intensively and critically, to “sift and weigh evidence” to decide if something is truth or fiction.

“We are to be critical consumers of what we hear and see,” she said.  “I pledge that will happen in Spokane Public Schools.”

Bishop Blase Cupich of the Catholic Church of Eastern Washington pointed out at the service that 2013 is a landmark year for racial equality and justice, because 150 years ago in January President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years ago in August Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the march on Washington.

“We will continue to promote human dignity in our world and will honor the voice of the prophet in our midst,” he said, expressing the call for everyone to accept responsibility.

James Wilburn, the new president of the Spokane Chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) said that the NAACP was the largest and most influential civil rights organization in 1929, when King Jr. was born.  King Sr. headed the NAACP in Atlanta, and in 1944 King Jr. chaired the youth membership committee of the Atlanta NAACP Youth Council.

King Jr. was on the executive committee of the Montgomery branch in 1955 when the secretary of the NAACP was arrested for not giving up her seat on a bus.  He formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, which organized a successful bus boycott.  In 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial segregation on busses unconstitutional.

“King Sr. involved his son in the NAACP when he was 15.  I appeal to you to do the same,” James said.  “If you want change, we need to speak with one voice.”

The NAACP is the oldest civil rights organization, formed 104 years ago, he said.  Frank Stokes founded the Spokane chapter 94 years ago in 1919.

“Bring your sons, daughters, nieces, nephews and neighbor’s children.  We need to open their minds so they see where they fit in society and that they can have hope to rise out of the despair I see in many of our children,” said James of his work as achievement gap specialist at Lewis and Clark High School.

In 1963, he was 11 years old when he saw King speaking to thousands about his dream. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act passed, ending local and state Jim Crow laws that segregated restrooms, drinking fountains, restaurants, schools and more.  In 1965, the Voting Rights Act passed.

April 3, 1968, a severe thunderstorm meant James had to cancel his 16th birthday party.  That evening, King gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop and I’ve Seen the Promised Land” speech.  On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, 16 minutes from James’s doorstep in nearby Sunset, Ark. 

With everyone crying around him, it was as if the dream and hope died on the balcony, James said.

“I look out among you gathered to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, and I see the dream is alive,” he said.  “This is a new day for the Spokane NAACP.  I hope we will build bridges so walls will no longer divide and build partnerships so we can assure equality and justice for all.

“We need to go out with bold determination to stick together and work together to make a difference,” he said of the NAACP’s commitment to partner with educators, the school system, schools, churches and businesses to work so there will be justice and equality for all, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, economic status or sexual orientation.

Freda Gandy, who has worked at the Martin Luther King Family Outreach Center for 14 years, the last three as executive director, said the recent years have been tumultuous times and last year she thought the center might close.

It’s still open, and she anticipates it will continue for another 40 years.

At the recent meeting of Spokane’s Martin Luther King Day Planning Committee, members elected Freda and Spokane Community Choir director Sharon Cowan co-chairs.

Freda, who moved to Spokane 20 years ago from a small town in Mississippi to attend Eastern Washington University, rarely saw students who looked like her.  Instead of having extended family live in her house, next door and across the street, she was alone when she became pregnant and a single mother.

Holy Temple Church of God in Christ became her family, helping her cope and understand that God was there for her then.  Today she knows God is with her in her work at the center.

“The center also had a huge role in my success, so I work to make sure the doors stay open for vulnerable children and youth,” said Freda, who has two degrees.

“King dedicated his life to work for justice and equal society.  We are still working to realize his dream and the best way is to educate children here,” she said, challenging women to find their worth through education and challenging everyone to help children succeed through education and on-time graduation. “Everyone has the power to uplift the community through service.”

Ivan Bush, who was executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center in the late 1970s, had thought when he completed graduate studies at Eastern Washington University, he’d move to California.

He shared the center’s history, starting in 1970, when seven African Americans from different churches and seven white laymen from First Presbyterian Church agreed there was need to care for children.  First Presbyterian opened a day care center in the Bryant Arms Apartments, and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which relocated and built Richard Allen Enterprises, opened and for 12 years housed the Martin Luther King Center in its basement. 

At first, the Presbyterian Church was the primary donor, along with African-American churches and pastors, and supporters who had fund-raising spaghetti dinners and fun walks. 

Ivan’s mentor, the Rev. James Sims, a former pastor at New Hope Baptist Church, counseled him to know that “how we treat our children is how we treat Jesus.  He imparted to me a desire to serve young people.”

He called for preachers and congregations in the African-American and wider community to take responsibility to provide financial support for the center, which is like a mini-United Nations with African-American, Native American, European American children, and children from the many immigrant and refugee families in the neighborhood.

“In 43 years the center has been open, how far have we come?  How well have we taken care of the children?” Ivan asked, concerned with the high dropout rate and the lack of jobs.

For information call 455-8722.

Copyright © February 2013 - The Fig Tree