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

Happy Watkins' mark on Spokane is much more than MLK’s dream

Happy Watkins is honored as he retires from New Hope Baptist.

Along with being known for passionately reciting the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, the Rev. Percy Happy Watkins often comforts parishioners or lends insights in community discussions with wisdom from many proverbs and quotes he has committed to memory.

Happy is retiring as pastor and will be honored at a retirement party from 6 to 9 p.m., Saturday, March 3, at location TBA. He will serve as pastor emeritus.

The oldest of 10 children growing up in a poor family in the Bronx on a block with thousands of blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans, Irish, Poles, Italians and Jews, he was shocked by the lack of diversity when arriving in 1961 in Spokane at 19 in the Air Force.

Within a month, he began attending Morningstar Baptist Church, which lightened the depression, homesickness and loneliness he first felt.  There he met his wife, Etta, in 1962, and they married in 1963.

He stayed and, while they raised their sons, Percy, James, John and Paul, he made an impact on the faith and wider community.

He worked six years with a grocery store, treating every customer with respect.  Then he traveled as a salesman. As the first black person some had seen, he defused racial slurs and stereotypes, breaking down distrust and putting people at ease by his friendliness.

For two years in the early 1980s, he ran a restaurant, then a ministry opportunity opened.

Happy restarted and served Sharon Christian Methodist Episcopal Church from 1982 to 1985, becoming licensed as a deacon, an elder and then a full pastor.  From 1985 to 1990, he was assistant pastor at Calvary Baptist, mentored by the Rev. C.W. Andrews, before he began in 1990 as pastor of New Hope Baptist Church.

While working for 12 years in security at Deaconess Medical Center, he took clinical pastoral education and served several years as a chaplain at Deaconess and then as chaplain and patient advocate at Holy Family Hospital.

When Happy started as pastor of New Hope Baptist Church the church’s call was for him to serve the community, not just the congregation.

So he worked in the community to improve the correctional system, police department, school district and youth programs related to racial issues.  He has also served on ecumenical bodies to bring reconciliation among churches and faiths.

Connection with the correctional system was passed on to him by his predecessor, the Rev. Jim Sims, who led services at Pine Lodge Correctional Facility and at Geiger.  Happy continued that work and brought prisoners to New Hope Baptist services for three years, until he realized some were not coming for faith reasons.

Happy has been among clergy challenging the disparity between the proportion of blacks in Spokane’s population and the proportion who are incarcerated.

To promote education and overcome the achievement gap, Happy has worked to assure that children and youth of color graduate, take college-prep classes or attend trade schools, and are informed of the variety of career choices. 

“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 to work hard in studies and at work.

In 1986, when there were no black police officers, he was among pastors and community leaders who changed practices related to the civil service exam. They learned there was a requirement that if an ethnic population was not represented in the police force, but some of that ethnic group passed the civil service test, they could float into the pool.

So that year, six black, two Hispanic and one Native American went through the Police Academy and became police officers. 

As pastor, Happy went to PTA meetings if parents couldn’t go.  He also challenged bias he met in housing sales and rentals.

He also worked with pastors and community leaders, and particularly Ivan Bush, former equal opportunity officer with Spokane Public Schools, to start the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center, first at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and then at 845 S. Sherman.

He helped organize nearly 30 years of MLK Day rallies and marches with the MLK Center after President Reagan established the national holiday in 1983

In 1986, Gov. Booth Gardner came to a luncheon at the Ridpath Hotel. Lydia Sims, president of NAACP Spokane, asked Happy to read the “I Have a Dream” speech.  He memorized it. Since then he has given it from Genesee, Idaho, to Cashmere, Wash., in schools, churches and universities—some years 30 to 40 times, but fewer times in recent years.

“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.

He, Ivan and other clergy organized the first rally and march in 1989, drawing 300 to Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church for the rally. Then 54 marched from the county courthouse to the federal building.  Now 3,000 to 4,000 participate.

After African-American astronaut Michael Anderson of Spokane died when Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry in 2003, Happy joined others to raise more than $100,000 for the memorial statue that now stands between the Opera House and Convention Center.

After years of perseverance by Happy, Ivan and others, Martin Luther King Jr. Way opened in May 2012, with the first phase extending Riverside Ave. from Division east to Sherman through the Riverpoint University District.

The second phase extended to Erie St. in 2016, and the third phase is the pedestrian-bike bridge under construction over the railroad tracks.

Mayor David Condon said Happy and Ivan brought the community together and broke down barriers: “You embody what King talked about and did.  You opened many doors for the community.”

Happy responded by quoting the Disney song, “When You Wish upon a Star,” that it makes no difference “who you are” and said no dream “is too extreme.”

Happy and Ivan had dreamed for of naming a street after King.

“Over the years, there were disappointments, setbacks, roadblocks, tears and heartaches,” he said, “but when you fall on your back, you can look up and get up.”

The City Council approved the street in 2009, when 770 other cities had streets named for King.

Along with sharing King’s dream for justice, Happy stresses the importance of family, home and the kitchen table.

In area prisons, he found many people who said they “didn’t listen to Mom and Dad.”

Happy realized from their stories the importance of family, having young men and women spend time with their children, and having children spend time with grandparents.

He and Etta, who is the second generation of her family to live in Spokane, are well into that role, receiving many of their grandchildren before breakfast, so their parents can go to work.  They drive them to school, pick them up and keep them until their parents return from work.

Happy said their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the fifth generation of her family living in Spokane, lighten their days.

As Happy has had an impact in the community and region in civil rights, race relations and ecumenical ties, he has also had an impact on many lives and families.

He has worked with the Ministers’ Fellowship Union, NAACP Spokane, the Martin Luther King  Jr. Family Outreach Center, The Fig Tree Board, the Police Accountability and other community programs and organizations.

“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.