The Rev. Percy “Happy” Watkins has become the face of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Northwest.
Each year for decades, Watkins has performed King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech at schools, churches, public gatherings – even a recent funeral. The pastor at New Hope Baptist Church, Watkins said that giving the speech and studying King’s life and work since the 1970s has helped shape his life.
The following is an edited version of an interview with Watkins last week – the busiest time of his year.
Q.How many times will you give the speech this year?
A.Just this week it’ll be 12, 15 times. More times in the month of February, during Black History Month. I get a chance to talk about what I think are three important components: The family, the home, the kitchen table. How we can, each of us, work to make a difference until making a difference don’t make a difference no more.
Q.Do you have a favorite line or passage from the speech?
A.This isn’t in the speech, but he said something that got me really started: “I sought my soul, and my soul I could not find. I sought my God, and He eluded me. I sought my brother, and I found all three.”
In another one of his speeches, he said everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t need a college degree. You don’t have to make your subjects and verbs agree. All you need is a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.
When I heard that, and these other little pieces, that’s what compelled me to start, in my own little way, going all over.
Q.In the last few months, we’ve had a surge of racist activity in North Idaho – swastikas painted on cars, racist leaflets, etc. Are we regressing?
A.It’s never going to go away. The refreshing part is that people are gathering to try to combat it. If you spend a day in this area, you’ll see a rainbow of people. All kinds of new faces are moving in here. There’s always just a few people with hate issues. But it’s not a lot.
Q.Do you ever get tired of giving the speech?
A.No. I still get nervous every time I do it. I was sitting at St. Charles today, 250 kids, age 5 to 15. These were mostly middle-class kids. Well-behaved. I polled some of the kids about what they wanted to become – football players, vets, doctors.
One African-American girl said, “I want to be a mom.” There was some sniggering, but I said, “That’s the highest calling in the world, to be a mom.”
When I think about how Martin Luther King Jr. sat with his sister and brother at the table, and how his mom and dad imparted their wisdom, for him to be the best he could be and telling him he was just as good as anybody. Where did that come from? Not from elementary school, junior high school, high school, college – it came from Mom.
Does it get old? No, because I can always find someone who gives me inspiration.
Q.How close are we to realizing King’s dream?
A.We get pieces. The great piece – the huge piece – is President Barack Obama.
Here in Spokane, slowly but surely, folks can see their dreams. Unfortunately, there’s a flip side. Our kids of color seem to be having a hard time with the educational system. High dropout rate. So we have committees, programs that are trying to help kids stay focused. It’s one thing to dream, but you’ve got to get out of bed and make something happen.