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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Virtual community forum planned ahead of MLK Day

The usual slate of holiday celebrations was dashed by the coronavirus pandemic, but the achievements of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., will not go unrecognized in Spokane this January.

Days before the holiday celebrating the national hero, local Black leaders will host a virtual community dialogue Wednesday.

The event, which is open to the public and will be streamed live on Facebook and City Cable 5, will feature two moderators and a multigenerational four-person panel to discuss King’s legacy and the continued relevance of his message.

The panel will include Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, Spokane Public Schools Board President Jerrall Haynes, Washington State University Associate Director of Equity Leadership Shantell Jackson and Jackie Gaither, vice president of the Gonzaga University Black Student Union.

It will be moderated by Cupid Alexander, the city’s Neighborhoods, Housing, and Human Services director, and Alex Gibilisco, the City Council’s Manager of Equity and Inclusion Initiatives.

The goal, Alexander said, is to create an event that still “intentionally convenes us and moves us forward,” despite limitations the coronavirus pandemic has created. There will be something for everyone to pull from the discourse, Alexander said.

“This is not only for Black people, this is for everyone,” Alexander said. “We’re just respecting and observing someone who happened to be a Black leader around the issues at the time.”

The discussion prompt will be King’s April 1963 letter written from inside a Birmingham, Alabama jail, following his arrest for participating in nonviolent protests against racism and segregation. The letter was an open response to “A Call for Unity” authored by eight local white religious leaders, who alleged protests were “directed and led in part by outsiders” and encouraged protesters to instead seek relief in the court system.

“I am here because I have organizational ties here. But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here,” King wrote.

“I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he went on. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Wilkerson said the event will allow the panel to share, from its members’ different perspectives, how the letter and its message still resonate today.

“After reading that letter a week ago, it’s like it was written yesterday,” said Wilkerson, who is the only Black member of the Spokane City Council.

Wilkerson said she expects the discussion to include “a lot about the complicity of well-meaning people who do nothing.” In his letter, King wrote that the “stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.”

“You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being,” King wrote.

The councilwoman said the conversation will hopefully lay the groundwork for economic development, to plant that seed to the greater community.”

Alexander said the economic themes present in King’s writing are particularly apropos at a time when people are financially struggling through the pandemic.

The event was crafted by Alexander and Lisa Gardner, the City Council’s communications director, both of whom were hired within the last year.

Alexander is a Spokane newcomer, while Gardner is a city native who returned when she took the job in the City Council office.

“With COVID running rampant, we wanted to make sure that we took all safety precautions. Of course we figured an online event would be best,” Gardner said.

The event will offer an opportunity for the community to discuss Dr. King’s legacy and what it means now, but also the events of 2020, Gardner said.

“Especially in light of what happened in the Capitol (on Wednesday), it’s crucial times and it’s a good time to discuss Dr. King’s legacy,” Gardner said.

Society is constantly pulling the past into the present, Alexander argued. The judicial system is based on precedent. Holidays are celebrated that were established generations ago.

“Why don’t we use that same concept that we have in society and apply it to the words of Dr. King to help move us forward and create opportunities?” Alexander said.

The event is slated to last an hour, which Gardner acknowledged might be insufficient.

“We’re still in that fight, we’re still trying to live out his dream years later and I don’t think that an hour is going to be enough time to really discuss it, but look at how many years have passed, and it’s still not enough time,” Gardner said.

To participate, members of the public can sign up at between 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.

The event begins with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at 3:45 p.m., followed by the panel discussion at 4 p.m.

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