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Etta Watkins follows husband’s lead in longtime pursuit of MLK’s dream

Etta Watkins, pictured in her Spokane home on Nov. 8, says she never grows tired of the “I Have a Dream” speech. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Etta Watkins, pictured in her Spokane home on Nov. 8, says she never grows tired of the “I Have a Dream” speech. (Tyler Tjomsland)

While Etta and Happy Watkins have been opposites in some ways, their shared values of faith, family and a commitment to keep alive the message of Martin Luther King Jr. for future generations have strengthened their marriage of 50 years.

They were married Aug. 17, 1963, 11 days before King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

And over the past 25 years, she’s heard the speech repeatedly as her husband, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, delivers it each January.

“I’ve heard the speech over and over. Each time it’s new, depending on his emotion and the crowd. I’m never tired of hearing it. I still come to tears, because I know it comes from the depths of Happy’s heart,” she said.

“It is a dream that will go on forever. It’s important for us to remember that we are all here and all God’s children and we have to get along,” she said.

“Racism in Spokane may not be or have been as blatant as it was in the South, but there’s an undercurrent flowing here, hard to see until you’re in the water,” Watkins added.

Etta Watkins was a country girl, growing up an only child in a family living in a rural area west of Spokane, 5 miles from the nearest store.

Her parents moved into Spokane in 1954 when she was in the fourth grade.

Her first year at Grant School, she was the only African-American. The next year there were children of two other families.

“When my boys went to Grant in the late 1970s, it was more diverse,” Watkins said.

Etta was adopted when she was 2 weeks old in Mississippi. Her mother, Annis Batsell, came to Spokane in the 1940s from Mississippi.

Her father, George Batsell, came to Spokane from St. Louis in the 1920s, when there were only five African-American families in town. He worked for 36 years, managing a gas station across from what is now the Spokane City Hall. Later, he ran his own gas station at Browne Street and Trent Avenue.

By the time she was 11, she pumped gas and worked on cars at her father’s stations.

She met her future husband, who came to Spokane with the Air Force, while she was a student at Lewis and Clark High School.

He was the oldest of 10, a city boy raised in the Bronx with people from many races, ethnicities, religions and lifestyles sharing the block.

She graduated in 1962. They married the next summer. Five decades later, their family includes four sons, six grandsons and one great granddaughter.

“On the important things, we are similar, believing family comes first and church life is important,” she said.

In her teen years, she attended church somewhat sporadically, she said. The first thing Happy Watkins did when he came to Spokane was find a church.

She had realized early in their marriage that one day he would become a minister.

At first, she was worried, not feeling she fit the mold of pastors’ wives, who wear hats and are “all prim and proper.” Her worries were alleviated at a state gathering for new pastors’ wives. An older wife told her to be herself.

“I do things different. I carry a tool box in my car trunk. If something needs to be fixed, I’ll do it,” Watkins said, noting that New Hope, where her husband has been pastor since 1990, accepts her for who she is. “I do what I see is needed. I may climb a ladder to change a light bulb.”

She is tech savvy, thanks to her career. After 20 years at the thrift store and in management for Wonder Bread and Hostess Cakes, she went to work for telecommunications companies, both in sales and management.

Watkins retired in 2000, and now does both the church’s and the family’s computer work – Happy Watkins doesn’t touch a computer.

She also helps with church dinners and fundraising, and has served as missionary president to “take members outside the walls,” such as recruiting people this year to prepare meals the third Thursdays at Crosswalk.

“Being a pastor’s wife gives me a stronger walk with Jesus. There are always surprises. I enjoy the diverse people we serve in our church, especially seeing growth in their lives,” she said.