Individuals, congregations, organizations march in cold
By Marijke Fakasiieiki
Freda Gandy, executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, greeted the crowd that gathered in the Spokane Convention Center, braving subzero temperatures for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Rally and March for Racial Unity.
Mayor Lisa Brown offered the City of Spokane Proclamation, saying, "King believed that true peace requires the absence of war with the powerful presence of justice. He believed violence brings only temporary victories, and by creating many more social problems than it solves, never brings permanent peace.
"He awakened the hearts of Americans by calling for true equality and integrity among citizens, by promoting a sense of justice that moves beyond racism and by encouraging a national realization that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," she said, calling for citizens to continue to live by Dr. King's principles, ethics and philosophy that all work together to improve humankind as a united body serving the community in positive ways.
"We are to participate in a Day on, not a Day off, to celebrate the civil rights leader's life and legacy," she said.
After JeNese Howard sang the national anthem, Lisa Gardner, newly elected president of the NAACP Spokane, lifted up concerns in hearing that a Spokane school was going to eliminate their MLK Assembly.
"Why would they do that? It's part of history, part of America, part of who we are," she said.
Lisa said the NAACP education chair contacted them and was told, "There's no interest in MLK by the students."
"This country is facing an alarming task as some try to eliminate black history from books and education. In Spokane, we watch it on the news, and think, it's not going to happen to us. Oh, yes, it is," she said.
Lisa added that the education chair then said, "I don't understand. Children are not just black, not just white, but of all races. Why would schools eliminate the one man who tried to bring this country together? Why would they eliminate something so profound because of student disinterest?
"Students don't like algebra or biology, but we teach those subjects," she said. "We have to stay vigilant and ensure our students learn about MLK every day. Let's make sure our schools, educators, principals and school board members understand the importance of a man who impacted not just black history, but American history. They assassinated him. We cannot let them assassinate his legacy."
Freda believes when the community hears about something like this, it will come together to make sure students learn history, because African American history is American history.
Then she reflected on the 2023 loss of Ivan Bush, a former executive director of the MLK Center, and co-chair and founder of Spokane's MLK Day, with Pastor Happy Watkins.
"Ivan poured his heart and soul into this community. We lost a great icon. His legacy will live on. He passed the torch, teaching me everything I know about organizing MLK Day," she said. "I hung on the coattails of Ivan and Happy and learned all I could."
Reading from his obituary, she said "Ivan will be remembered for his passion, activism, mentorship, kindness and the heart that he shared with his family, friends and the Spokane community. Being around Ivan, one left feeling like he cared, and they mattered and could achieve anything."
Ivan encouraged Freda to stay in Spokane despite her apprehension, especially after the 2011 MLK march, when a bomb was put on the route.
Freda said that because Ivan uplifted, empowered and encouraged people here, his legacy will continue in Spokane."
Ivan's widow, Fanny and daughters, Ivy and Oceania, flew from the East Coast to celebrate his life and legacy, which included mentoring children and adults with Spokane Public Schools.
Oscar Harris of Spokane Public Schools shared a quote from Ivan to students, "If it is to be, it's up to me." Oscar said he stands on Ivan's shoulders as "one of a few African Americans in district leadership.
Announcing that the MLK Center established an Ivan Bush Community Service Award, Freda presented it to Jenay Langford, who volunteered several summers at the center.
Latrice Williams, a local singer, paid tribute to Ivan, who had helped her and others stay in school. She sang, "I want to leave my footprints on the sands of time," by Beyoncé, while a video showed past MLK marches in Spokane.
Freda also announced that the Happy Watkins Scholarship was started last year. The 2023 rally raised $16,000 for three students. They again raised funds at the 2024 rally.
Heather Rosentrater, Avista's first woman president and chief operating officer, co-presented the first award. She remembered her parents taking her and her sister to hear Happy recite MLK's "I Have a Dream Speech."
Vernon Glass, the recipient, a senior from Roger's High School, is president of the Black Student Union and Associated Student Body and vice president of DECA. He has a 3.5 GPA, is active in sports and works part time. Thanking his mother and Happy, and recalling past rallies, he said, "It's a dream come true."
Freda said Happy, who was at home, was proud of the recipient. She then showed a video of a previous time Happy recited Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech and invited attendees to donate to the scholarship fund.
James Watkins, Happy's son and pastor at New Hope Baptist Church, shared appreciation to the donors, "as we want to continue the dream of MLK and continue Happy's dream to bring everyone together in this city."
Stephy Nobles-Beans, motivational speaker and associate chaplain for diversity, equity and inclusion ministries at Whitworth, rallied the crowd before the seven-tenths of a mile march in the frigid air.
She sang, "Keep your eyes on the prize," sharing that the song calls people to persevere despite struggles and injustices, and despite discrimination and obstacles to focus on the big picture, the dream that is unfolding to this day."
Through her talk, she repeated, "If not you, who? If not now, when?"
Concerned about violence in the world, she called for continuing the dream. She said it has been 55 years since the assassination of the Reverend—not just Doctor—Martin Luther King Jr., who had hopes and preached dreams, not only for his people, but also for all Americans.
He said, "You can kill the dreamer, but you cannot kill the dream."
Dr. King also said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
"We are standing in times of challenge and controversy," said Stephy, "so I challenge myself this year to create the beloved community, where injustice ceases and love prevails. If not me, who? If not now, when?
"We are part of the beloved community. As we strive to cultivate something better, it starts with us. It starts with me spreading love, hope and courage to stand up to injustices in our community. It starts with us showing unity," she said. "We don't have to wait for someone else to step up. Step up. Don't be a bystander."
Dr. King said, "The time is always right to do what is right."
"It is right to spread hope, stand up and have courage in the face of adversity. It starts with me showing unity, and it starts with you. I challenge you today to take a step now in this community," Stephy said.
Dr. King said, "It's got to be me. I've got to show love. I've got to show unity. I've got to stand in courage, because if it's not me, then who? If it's not now, when?"
Stephy said he stepped out even though he and his family faced threats. He was imprisoned for his work. He believed in non-violence. He emphasized virtues of understanding, love, peace and learning. He risked his life, and it cost him his life.
Those who stood with him acted against injustice and systemic racism for the world to take notice that a change was going to come.
"I pray we continue in Spokane to take moral responsibility," Stephy challenged, to follow King's moral path toward achieving justice.
"Each of us must do our part to build the beloved community. May we be champions of justice," she said, closing by asking, "If not us, who? If not now, when?"