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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: King coverage seems to be a yearly write-up, but the truth on race is deeper

UPDATED: Mon., April 2, 2018

Walter Kendricks remembers that he was at a Boy Scouts meeting in Lorain, Ohio, when he heard.

Otis Manning recalls his mother hearing the news in their Seattle home, on radio or television, and bursting into tears. Amos Atkinson Jr. was at practice for his high school track team in the Los Angeles area. Donnie Stone was returning from school in Coulee Dam to find his mom watching the news on their black-and-white TV.

“I came home and my mom was sitting on our couch crying, saying Dr. King was killed,” says Stone, a retired pastor in Spokane.

We’re sitting in the Michael P. Anderson Library at Morning Star Baptist Church, talking about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Kendricks, Manning, Atkinson, Stone and other members of the Spokane Ministers’ Fellowship – African-American pastors carrying forward King’s work here – are talking about their memories and King’s legacy, nationally and in Spokane. For many of them, King’s assassination was not just a major national event, but a deeply personal one.

We talk about progress, and the lack of progress. We talk about the discrimination that still greets young African-Americans in schools and the workplace. We talk about Spokane’s “subtle” racism, the way the white majority often smiles and says the right things – celebrates the holiday, participates in the march – while operating in ways that deny African-Americans full access to King’s dream.

“Here in the North, racism is subtle,” says Pastor James Watkins, who grew up in Spokane listening to his father, the Rev. Happy Watkins, give King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” all over town. “Dealing with the subtleties is very difficult.”

We also talk about something else: Me. The white guy from the newspaper owned by one of the founding families of Spokane. The latest reporter to show up for a remembrance of King, ready to fill his notebook with inspirational quotations and vanish until the next remembrance.

As we sit in that small library, surrounded by books and a large portrait of Anderson, the Cheney native who died in the space shuttle Columbia disaster, the Rev. Dr. C.W. Andrews asks me: What’s my purpose in writing this story? Who do I hope to reach? What do I hope it accomplishes?

Andrews, the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, has been in Spokane for a half-century. At 81, he has been approached frequently by reporters in this town for his comments about King. It’s very often been white reporters who come to seek the views of “the African-American community” by way of a few quick interviews with the black clergy.

Andrews sees this as just one more expression of the overall Spokane cycle on race – “the old talk and nothing behind it.”

“I want to hear you say, ‘Let’s make a difference,’ ” Andrews tells me, “rather than a write-up every year.”

‘We had to continue’

On April 4, 1968, King was shot to death on the balcony of a hotel in Memphis. His murder was then, and remains, a monumental event in the nation’s history, one that embodies the deep stain of violent white supremacy and the impetus to try and overcome it.

Spokane and the Inland Northwest has a distinct history in regard to those subjects. There has been a small black community here since practically the city’s founding, but it’s remained relatively small – about 2 percent of the city’s population in the 2010 Census.

There was not the formalized racism of slavery and Jim Crow here, but formal and informal forms of discrimination abounded, in housing and employment and education and politics. The city elected a black mayor more than 35 years ago, but the region has also persistently attracted white supremacists and racist violence. Seven years ago, a racist loner tried to bomb the Martin Luther King parade.

During the 1960s, Andrews worked for AT&T as an installer of phone systems, based in Yakima. His work would bring him to Spokane occasionally, where he recalls being denied service more than once.

He was working on a project in downtown Seattle when King was shot.

“I don’t even like to talk about it, to this day,” he said.

He would move to Spokane for good in 1970. He’s been the pastor at Calvary Baptist, the oldest African-American church in the state, for almost 44 years. In that time, he said, he’s seen a whole lot of the “old talk and nothing behind it” – the smiling, sometimes disingenuous face of white Spokane.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Andrews said. “There are good people in Spokane, who mean right and righteousness. But there aren’t enough.”

Andrews grew up in Selma, Alabama. In that respect, he’s like many of the members of the Spokane Ministers’ Fellowship, who came here from places where racism was often more overt.

Atkinson, who is the assistant pastor at Calvary, grew up in the Los Angeles area. He was 16 when King was murdered, already tuned in to the civil rights struggle, already having lived through the riots in Watts and the murder of Malcolm X. He said the assassination of King was galvanizing.

“First of all, it was a sad day for us,” he said. “He was out there fighting along with all the others – not only for black rights but everybody’s rights. It just made us understand we had to continue to fight.”

Manning, who is the pastor at Word of Faith Christian Center, said, “The dreamer died, but the dream lives on.”

‘A long way to go’

King’s legacy is sometimes varnished with a simplistic, anodyne coat of uplift – one in which that tragedy a half-century ago produced a stirring wave of national triumph over racism.

The Spokane pastors see it in much more qualified terms.

“We’ve come a long way,” Atkinson said, “but we have a long way to go.”

Stone sees little progress in terms of racism and discrimination.

“I don’t think much has changed,” he said. “It hasn’t changed and it ain’t gonna change, at least in my lifetime, because we have too many people in politics who don’t want it changed.”

The ministers were particularly concerned about inequities in education and hiring in Spokane. More black students drop out of school here than population overall, and the pastors were concerned about the way that disciplinary policies and classroom management affects children of color.

Black unemployment exceeds white unemployment across the board, and they told stories of young African-Americans who moved away from Spokane to find work. They talked about how, when people of color are included in the political decision-making, they are often included as seeming afterthoughts, once the agenda has already been established.

The region has also seen a resurgence in racist behavior – the perennial whack-a-mole of cowardly bigots hanging racist posters downtown, or vandalizing the MLK children’s center or plastering campuses with white-pride declarations.

On key questions of opportunity for African-Americans, and particularly young people, the pastors said not enough has changed.

“The jobs are not available for our kids when they graduate from high school,” Atkinson said. “They’ve got to leave Spokane to get a job. That’s what we need to be talking about.”

Andrews said that, rather than looking backward on the last 50 years, he’s interested in looking at what’s happening right now, with the students across the country marching to demand safer schools and progress on gun violence.

“My heart goes out to these young people who are crying out for protection today,” he said. “Their hearts are right, and they’re trying to make a change, and that’s what Dr. King was trying to bring about.”

‘I began to understand’

Spokane’s small black community was a source of concern for James Wilburn Jr. when he and his wife, Roberta, were considering moving here 11 years ago. They lived in Arkansas, and Roberta had gotten an administrative job at Whitworth.

“I looked up the demographics here,” said Wilburn, 65. “I said, ‘Look baby, I don’t think I want to go.’ ”

He had lived almost his entire life in the kind of mirror image of Spokane’s racial dynamic – almost entirely among African-Americans, with limited interactions with white people.

“How would I get along in Spokane with a dashiki on?” he wondered.

That was 11 years ago, and Wilburn – and his dashikis – have become important figures in the African-American community here. He was president of the NAACP for a couple of years, and later worked to help close the “achievement gap” for minority students in Spokane schools. Part of that was working to lower the dropout rate for African-American students in schools here.

Wilburn has vivid personal memories of King’s assassination – it happened just minutes from his home. He grew up in Sunset, Arkansas, just across a bridge from Memphis. On the evening of King’s assassination, he was supposed to be having his 16th birthday party. His birthday is April 3, but the party had been delayed by a storm the previous day.

On April 4, he finished school and track practice, and returned home in the early evening.

“I was thinking birthday party,” he said. “Now it’s on.”

But at home, his mother and grandmother were weeping over the news.

“It really felt like I was kicked in the gut,” he said. “I really hurt. As a 16-year-old, I began to understand who Dr. King was and what he meant.”

Wilburn had grown up in the Jim Crow South: segregated bathrooms, water fountains, schools, neighborhoods. It had been seeing King give his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on TV in 1963 that began, he said, to awaken him to the realities of racism.

Before hearing King, he said, “I didn’t know the conditions in which I lived, completely.”

Wilburn’s family history is rife with the scars of Southern racism. His father’s good friend and business partner was lynched when Wilburn was a young child. His family was burned out of three homes in the 1950s. Wilburn’s family was, for several years, more prosperous than others in their community, but he also remembers years of struggle – when he cut out cardboard to put into his worn-out shoes, hoping it didn’t rain.

Wilburn went on to graduate from college and serve as mayor of Sunset for 12 years.

“All these things, as I look back, made Dr. King more important and relevant in my life, in terms of changing those dynamics,” he said.

‘Gave ’em a bone’

Back in the Anderson library at Morning Star, we are talking about race and racism in Spokane.

And about me and the newspaper.

When Andrews asked me the purpose of my story, I told him I wanted to talk to African-Americans here about their memories of King and their sense of his legacy. I wanted to hear what they had to say about the state of race relations, then and now, in this community, and to tell that story to readers.

This explanation, it must be said, is an utterly tired, trite formulation. It is true – I very much did, and do, want to do that – but it’s also nothing more than the most simplistic, routine response to the issues of race and racism in Spokane. When Crawford talks about a “write-up every year,” followed by nothing else until the next write-up the following year, the next write-up about King’s inspiring legacy reported and written and mediated by another white journalist in Spokane, it’s impossible to disagree.

Atkinson has seen a lot of these stories; they strike him as, “OK, we gave ’em a bone now.”

“That’s what I see with a lot of articles being written,” he said.

Crawford asks me a pointed question: How many African-Americans work here at the newspaper that had come out to gather his thoughts about Dr. King?

I tell him that I’m not sure about the company overall. In my department, the newsroom, the number is now zero.

“That’s like a slap in the face,” he says.

He does not do this with a rancorous spirit. He is zeroing in on an underlying truth of race in Spokane, the degree to which the subject is controlled and mediated by white people, many of whom might be more interested in celebrating progress and believing the best of themselves than truly helping provide concrete change.

At the end of the interview, we hold hands in a circle and Atkinson prays. He prays for this story – that it will not be watered-down, the hard facts not be edited out, their voices not muffled or minimized.

That it will be true.

Editor’s note: This story was changed Monday, April 2, 2018 to correct the name of Calvary Baptist Church.

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