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Thousands turn out for MLK march

As they began the downtown Unity March during Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration, tears overcame the two men who’ve led the annual event for more than 20 years.

The Rev. Happy Watkins and Ivan Bush both announced that Monday’s celebration in downtown Spokane was the last they would organize and direct. From this point on, said Watkins, they’ll be mentors and guides, and they’re letting younger leaders take the reins.

Monday’s event, which started at the Spokane Convention Center and followed with a march to the heart of downtown, drew about 3,000 people, far surpassing the previous year’s crowd.

Watkins said it was clear the strong turnout was a response to the backpack bomb discovered along the planned route of last year’s march. The bomb was found before the march; police diverted the march route, and law enforcement officers later arrested Kevin Harpham, 37, of Colville, for the crime. He was sentenced to 32 years in prison for attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to injure people in a hate crime.

As he has done in previous years, Watkins, the pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, delivered an emotional recitation of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Following Watkins’ re-enactment, the 62-year-old Bush told the assembled group he and Watkins were ready to step back: “We, too, have been to the mountaintop. And we looked, and what we found was that it’s time to let go. Sometimes, it’s just time.”

Afterward, well-wishers came up to Bush and Watkins, and both men had to brush tears from their eyes.

Watkins is 69. He said his health has been failing and he lacks the energy needed for the task. “I told people two years ago that last year would be my last. But they convinced me to stay one more year,” he said.

Bush and Watkins said they’ll stay close to the event but in a supporting role.

Watkins’ riveting recitation of the “Dream” speech has been recorded and posted often online. He said Monday that he will continue reciting the speech as long as organizers and community groups want.

Seated inside the convention center and watching the marchers leave the room, Watkins said the day was an important one for all those committed to community peace and healing.

“My spirit feels elevated,” he said. “It’s thrilling to look out and see something like what Jesus saw on the mountain top, a multitude of people.”

Last year’s turnout was estimated at fewer than 1,700 people. Watkins said he felt Monday’s strong turnout is directly due to the bomb scare. “I think this year there were far more white people than black people. They were here to say, ‘We’re not going to let that turn us around.’”

Bush told the assembly, “The first day we did this, there were 49 people. And now look at us, in the thousands. We keep coming together, people are standing up and we’re not going to (celebrate) just one day. We’ll commit to equality and freedom and love, 365 days a year.”

The guest speaker was the Rev. Stephen J. Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America. Thurston said he came to Spokane because he heard the community had made major strides in forging stronger ties across ethnic and racial boundaries.

Thurston’s late father was a colleague of Martin Luther King Jr., and on a few occasions he heard King give sermons in the Chicago church where his own father was pastor.

“I hadn’t grown up experiencing the racism that my parents and Dr. King did,” said Thurston. “But the lesson he gave me was that all of us have to work harder if we’re going to make permanent changes in our society. He taught me that in a powerful way.”