It started in a church basement in one of the whitest cities in the country.
Twenty-five years later, it still endures racist graffiti, hate phone calls and the constant cash squeeze.
Tucked in Spokane’s East Central neighborhood, the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center is an integrated oasis where dozens of black children lock hands with white children most every day.
It’s also an understaffed shop scrambling to survive and expand so it can help some of the poor families seeking help that it now must turn away.
On a recent morning, center director Valerie Marshall, dreadlocks swinging, works the phone in her tight office with this quote on the wall: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
She asks a radio station to donate air time for a public service announcement on King’s birthday activities. Her calls and letters go out to the city’s powerful, to anyone who can pull a lever. She asks an assistant to call City Hall to check the spelling of Mayor Jack Geraghty’s name.
Next door, about 30 children play inside the center’s preschool, a former fire station at Eighth and Sherman, where the sign out front says “All Are Welcome.”
The children color sketches of King, play games and learn his “dream” speech.
“I have a dream,” instructor Brenda Kane tells nine children of different shades of brown and white. “I have a dream,” the kids repeat. “That one day little black boys and girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and girls….” says Kane. The children echo the words, some losing interest, holding hands too soon.
Sitting nearby with a boy who’s in trouble for sticking a crayon up his nose is Annie Boyd, 31.
Twenty years ago Boyd trudged after school to the basement of the Bethel AME Church on Newark Avenue where the center started.
“The center helped me through the grudge and the hate,” Boyd said, recalling playing and listening in the windowless basement. “It taught me a lot. How to grow up. How to treat people. Attitude.”
By 1981, the center moved to an old firehouse, where the city offered a generous lease deal - $1 a year. In 1990, the center turned a neighboring house into its headquarters.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions about what the Martin Luther King Center is,” said Marshall, who speaks to classes throughout Eastern Washington about King. “Some people mistake us for being a (King) museum. Some think we’re a civil rights office.”
The anonymous racist telephone calls also pick up this time of year, as it gets closer to King’s birthday, center staff said.
The center proudly erected signs two years ago, with the silhouette of King, to explain that it’s a family outreach center.
The freshly painted white signs were scarred with black swastikas by the morning.
Marshall doesn’t dwell on these incidents.
As director, she wants the center’s 25-year anniversary to help people better understand its role in Spokane, to expand the center and reach more people.
The center is already an independent social services life preserver for many poor Spokane families.
Along with the preschool, the center provides a summer youth academy, a family counseling center, an emergency needs assistance program.
The center writes checks to help pay utility, food, housing bills and more for about 30 Spokane families. It sponsors a drug- and alcohol-free apartment building a few blocks away on Hartson.
From Marshall’s vantage, it’s all about banding together to give children a healthy start. “It takes a village to raise a child,” she says, repeating her favorite slogan.
Even preserving the center’s existing services demands more and more donations, most of which come from United Way, individuals and occasional grants.
“The biggest challenge is always the funding,” Marshall said. “We never know from year to year. We may get a grant, but it’s very shortlived. Programs start and stop. We get programs off the ground and we have to end them.”
The center is holding an open house Monday after the Civil Rights Unity March beginning at 9:30 a.m. at the U.S. Court House at Riverside and Monroe.
Marshall recounted the story of King’s life to the preschoolers Thursday.
Some already knew the tale. They knew Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. They knew King was killed with a gun. They knew he had a powerful dream.
The children were asked to share their own dreams. One saw world peace. Another, a world free of guns.
Most were more personal.
They wanted their parents to get along and to stay at home. One 3-year-old girl with bright pigtail ties whispered this wish. “My dream is that Daddy loves me every day.”