MLK Day is a chance to pass on the legacy of civil rights
Since he was a boy, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was James Watkins’ favorite time of year.
“It has been one time a year when the city goes color blind and greets everyone in love as we celebrate the Rev. Dr. King,” he said, speaking for the annual Commemoration Celebration Jan. 19 at Holy Temple Church of God in Christ.
James is pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, along with serving as a lieutenant at Airway Heights Correction Center.
In introducing him at the service, Walter Kendricks, pastor of Morningstar Baptist Church and president of the Spokane Ministers Alliance—which co-sponsored the service with the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center—said he admired James for filling the shoes of a legend, his father Happy Watkins, who is now pastor emeritus.
Every year, Happy has recited King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which instilled in James the importance of the holiday for passing on the legacy and history of civil rights to the next generation.
Now it’s James’ turn as father and grandfather to tell the story, which he shared in the context of a Scripture lesson.
James read from Luke 10 the story of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked him what the law said. He said to love God with all “your strength, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” When he asked Jesus who his neighbor was, Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, helping a man robbed, stripped and left to die on the road to Jericho. A priest and Levite passed by, but a Samaritan—an outsider despised by Jews—acted in mercy.
“The underlying issues we face today are hostility, racism and classism, almost more than in the time of King,” James said, commenting that “the priest and deacon passed by the man who was robbed, but the Samaritan—one not liked in society—one whose heart is filled with sympathy and pity. He bound his wounds, pouring wine and oil, and took the man to the inn, paying two denarii, enough for 24 days, so the man could recuperate.
“How many of us would do that? How many of us see folks who do not look like us to be our neighbor and step out of their comfort zone?” he said.
James believes King heard that scripture as a boy. The son of college-educated parents, King at 15 graduated from high school and entered Morehouse College, graduating in 1948 at 19. He earned a master of divinity degree in 1951, married Coretta Scott in 1953 in Alabama, and earned a doctoral degree from Boston University in 1955, when he became pastor at Dexter Ave. Baptist Church.
Soon after that Rosa Parks sat in the bus, “so King would march so Obama would run,” he quipped.
King rallied pastors to act—to start the Montgomery bus boycott to improve society. The work for civil rights led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“King believed in agitating and legislating,” said James, telling of him sitting beside Ralph Abernathy on a plane one day, looking out the window and saying, ‘We can never forget the ground crew’—all who came before.”
So James listed some of the “ground crew” for the civil rights movement, saying “we need to know about them.”
• Ella Baker helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
• James Baldwin was an American novelist, playwright and activist exploring racial, sexual and class differences.
• Daisy Bates played a leading role in the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957.
• Julian Bond, a civil rights leader, NAACP leader, politician, professor and writer, helped found the SNCC and Southern Poverty Law Center.
“How many of our children know about them?” James asked. “Do we know our history?”
He continued listing names.
• Stokely Carmichael, Kwame Ture, a militant socialist organizer of the civil rights movement in the U.S. and the global Pan-African movement.
• Malcolm X, an American Muslim minister and human rights activist, described the choice between King and himself as the choice “between the ballot or the bullet.”
Going back in history, James listed some other examples:
• Frederick Douglas went from being a slave to being an abolitionist.
• W.E.B. Dubois, who was the first African American to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard, led the Niagara Movement and later helped form the NAACP.
• Medgar Evers, a civil rights leader in Mississippi who was shot by a sniper bullet in his driveway for his voter-registration efforts and economic boycotts.
• Fanny Lou Hamer was a champion of civil rights and women’s rights.
• John Lewis, who led the Bloody Sunday march from Selma to Montgomery, said he carried four books, an apple and an orange, because he expected to go to jail. He has represented Georgia 17 terms in the House of Representatives. He recently announced he has pancreatic cancer.
• Another civil rights leader, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, died in October.
“They understood the need to take the message of civil rights to the culture,” said James.
“The Rev. Dr. King had a prayer life second to none,” he added. “He was close to God. For Christ he lived. For Christ he died. Nothing could separate Dr. King from Christ. His church was bombed. His house was bombed. He did not waiver or change course because of fear. God gave him the Spirit to live.
“I do not separate King and Christ. We honor King. We honor Christ,” he said.
“I look to the ground crew for civil rights who have been around for a long time,” he said, turning to name some local civil rights heroes, the Rev. James and Lydia Sims, and Carl Maxey.
“As long as I stand, I continue to do the work they started,” he said.
“The next generation is falling behind. They need to hear the message about civil rights,” he said. “I stand on the shoulders of giants who passed the message to my generation. We need to be true to King’s message to love one another as we love ourselves. We are the ground crew.”
For information, call 868-0856 or visit mlkspokane.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, February, 2020