Fig Tree Logo

Betsy Wilkerson honors local civil rights leaders

Betsy Wilkerson, Spokane City Council President, is surrounded by her grandchildren who inspired her to run.

At the Martin Luther King Jr. service organized by the Spokane Ministers Fellowship, Spokane City Council President Betsy Wilkerson read the scripture on the landowner who gave five talents to one worker, two to another and one to the third. She said the first two doubled their talents. The third, who buried it in the ground, was chastised for not using the talent.

"What are you going to do with your talent?" she challenged. "While the Scripture speaks of money, the parable symbolizes more. God has given us gifts, lived experiences and education."

During the service Happy Watkins, pastor emeritus at New Hope Baptist Church, thanked those gathered for the worship service for the legacy he hopes will go on and on.

Freda Gandy and Rev James Watkins

Freda Gandy, executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr Community Center, told of her 24 years with the center, starting as a single mother needing help with her son so she could finish her degree in social work at Eastern Washington University. Her son was a preschooler when she began as a volunteer. She wanted to be a good mother and get higher education.

The MLK Family Center was first a drop-in recreation center in the basement of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It has grown to a comprehensive social service agency offering education and social services for children, youth, families and seniors.

"We could not do it without community partners," Freda said. "We exist to improve the lives of children, youth and adults based on equal respect for all people."

There are pre-school, after-school, teen recreation and seniors programs, and partners sharing the space.

In honor of the late Ivan Bush, who died in June 2023, slides prepared by his family shared his legacy in Spokane.

caption:   Pastor Happy Watkins, center, is surrounded by the late Ivan Bush's daughters, Ivy and Oceana, and his widow, Fanny, to his left. Behind them are Ephriam Watkins and his mother, Shawn Watkins. At the right is Happy's son, James Watkins.

"He was a great civil rights leader in Spokane, an early director of the MLK Center," said Freda. "I walked alongside Happy and Ivan and hung on their coattails."

James Watkins, who led the service, said Ivan was a central figure in his life from early days at the center.

"Ivan and my dad were best friends. He was there for every important event of my life and taught me the work for civil rights must continue," James said.

As Betsy began her speech, she looked at the people gathered at Holy Temple Church of God in Christ with tears of joy: "I see old folk and young, people who have impacted my life. We all have a role to play, not knowing how we will impact people," Betsy said.

She thanked her grandchildren who encouraged her to run. She thanked her Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) family and her family at Mt. Zion and Full Gospel Mission churches where she grew up and her parents were ministers. She gave special thanks to her parents' colleagues, pastors Happy Watkins, Ezra Kinlow and CW Andrews.

Speaking of talents, she noted that "Dr. King had many talents as a parent, civil rights leader, speaker and preacher. In 1963, he challenged an ordinance that prohibited a public gathering without a permit. He was arrested for the 13th time and stayed in the Birmingham jail to highlight the plight of black folks," she said. "The Auto Workers Union bailed him out.

"Before that, Christian pastors and the Jewish community wrote a letter to the editor criticizing outsiders and agitators. A friend smuggled a copy of the paper to King in jail. Notes he wrote in the margins became his 7,000-word Letter from the Birmingham Jail, saying that what the Christian faith tells us to do includes going to jail and praying." Betsy said.

"He let the naysayers and moderates have it, writing: 'My fellow clergy, I write in defense of nonviolent protest and call colleagues, fence-sitters to push for civil rights,'" said Betsy, pointing out that going on the record like that could mean loss of a job or house.

She added that King used his talents but knew he would not achieve his dream without the talents of others.

Wyatt Tee Walker, a civil rights leader from Virginia, helped King spread the word and plan the March on Washington.

Another helpmate was King's wife, Coretta Scott King, who carried on his legacy, marching at Selma and speaking 15 days before her death from ovarian cancer. She sang at churches, developed the King Center and the King holiday. Coretta told the story of the civil rights movement from Montana to D.C., raising money and fighting for MLK Day to honor her husband.

Betsy made the point that Coretta was more than a faithful wife and mother. She and many others made the dream come true.

She named some local civil rights leaders who used their gifts.

• C.E. Hamp started Hamp's Camp, taking inner city children to the lake for a week with the help of volunteer cooks, drivers and counselors.

• Former mayor Jim Chase had talents but needed folks who believed in him.

• "A body of ministers got black people on the police force. It took many folks to make that happen," Betsy said.

• "Carl Maxey was the Lion of Spokane, our legal eagle and civil rights activist," she continued.

• "Sandy Williams, another civil rights activist, started the Black Lens despite naysayers. Look at what God did with her talents. She could not do what she did without others helping her publish The Black Lens and start the Carl Maxey Center," Betsy continued.

• Lonnie Mitchell, pastor of Bethel AME, wanted to start a new community center. It took him 10 years of perseverance for his vision to become Emmanuel Family Life Center.

• "Others with vision include Freda moving the MLK center to the East Central Community Center where she could expand daycare, the preschool, afterschool, recreation and a tech team. The center is a place to celebrate homecomings and parties. I admire her tenacity in an uphill battle through challenges to make King's dream available to others," Betsy said.

"There are legacy builders we may not see. Look at cornerstones of buildings and see names of black leaders like Nate Greene. His wife Roberta Greene was the first black woman to serve on the Spokane City Council," Betsy added.

"My mother brought me and my siblings here on a train from Mississippi in 1963. We had a basket of chicken and a pound cake," she said. "My mother had a vision of a better life for her children. She set up as a hairdresser until she was called to ministry. My mother had the first mobile food bank, picking up food at the Grocery Outlet and taking it to people."

Betsy thanked the Spokane Ministers Fellowship for a letter of support when she was considered for a City Council opening in 2019.

"I have never forgotten my roots in the house of the Lord," she said.

Betsy said Happy and Ivan worked together many years to fulfill another dream, naming a Spokane street Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

"Because of Dr. King, we do all these things," she said.

"Lord, are you talking to me? Use my talents," she said. "To whom much is given, much is required. What is the church doing? We in the black churches often do not notice our own privilege.

"Busy with feeding and caring for our families and with doing our work may occupy our attention, but we should not let the rest of the world and others' problems become background noise," she said. "Brothers and sisters in Christ, we have to look around and notice how others experience the world.

"Then we need to use our talents and do one thing unto God. Let us do good for all," Betsy said. "Look at all the talents in the room. God sends up people to identify talents in our lives.

"Dr. King needed courage, intelligence and dedicated leadership of integrity, not in love of power for money but for justice," she said, inviting people to turn in their egos for a good cause "because everyone has opportunity for greatness."

The offering from the service began a campaign to renovate the gym at the MLK Community Center.

For information, call 858-0856 or visit

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, February 2024