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‘Say that I was a drum major’: 36 years ago, two men took the first steps to keep MLK’s dream alive in Spokane

UPDATED: Mon., Jan. 18, 2021

Rev. Percy “Happy” Watkins delivers MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech to thousands gathered at the Spokane Convention Center before the Unity March in 2011 as Ivan Bush, right, listens.  (DAN PELLE)
Rev. Percy “Happy” Watkins delivers MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech to thousands gathered at the Spokane Convention Center before the Unity March in 2011 as Ivan Bush, right, listens. (DAN PELLE)

In 1984, before Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a federal holiday, Ivan Bush and Dan Johnson led Spokane’s first march honoring King.

They were nervous. They didn’t know how Spokane would react, said Bush, 71, from his home in a suburb of Washington, D.C.

“We didn’t ask permission, we just did it,” Bush said with a laugh.

They were working at the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center, formed by a group of seven Black pastors and seven laymen from First Presbyterian Church a few years earlier. The march was made up of Bush, Johnson and 47 kids from the Center, he said, and he was worried.

Then, walking downtown, as the kids carried a butcher paper sign that read, “Happy Birthday Dr. King,” people saluted them. Others came running out of businesses to give a thumbs-up. Crossing the Monroe Street Bridge, cars were blowing their horns.

“In those early days – as many problems as I have with Spokane – on the day we did the very first march, Spokane exemplified hope in my eyes,” Bush said. “I’m not saying that was all the time, but on that first day, Spokane exemplified hope in my eyes and in my heart.”

The Rev. Percy “Happy” Watkins thinks the threats he’s experienced as a regional voice for civil rights are minor.

He said he’s given King’s “I Have a Dream” speech “easily 1,000 times” since he started in the 1980s, including annually at the march Bush started.

Watkins can list dozens of schools, churches and American Indian reservations where he’s recited it, spanning across Washington, Idaho, Montana and California.

In 2011, just before Spokane’s annual Martin Luther King Day march where Watkins was set to give the speech, public facilities workers found a backpack with a bomb planted along the march’s route.

Around that same time – though Watkins can’t place the year – he was getting off a stage after giving the speech when a man grabbed him and told him “I don’t believe in that (expletive).”

Police took the man to jail, Watkins said. A pastor called Watkins and explained that the young man had been abandoned by his family and informally adopted by skinheads and the Aryan Nation. Upon hearing that, Watkins went to the jail and asked for the charges to be dismissed.

“I thought maybe I could give him just a little hope,” Watkins said.

In 1986, the first time Watkins gave the speech, it was to a crowd that included then-Washington Gov. Booth Gardner at a Spokane NAACP luncheon.

As assistant pastor at New Hope Baptist Church, Watkins asked the Rev. C.W. Andrews if he could stay in the church during the night before the luncheon to memorize King’s words.

He got Pepsi and fish and chips from Dick’s Hamburgers, locked himself in a room and stayed until 3 a.m., when he knew every word.

At the luncheon, without a wink of sleep, Watkins said the then-president of the Spokane Chapter of the NAACP told the group, “‘Happy Watkins now will read the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.’ Little did she know that I had it memorized.”

“I got up, gave the speech,” Watkins said. “There was lots of emotion, lots of tears, lots of joy after I finished.”

After all these years, each speech is about as emotional as the first. For Watkins, channeling that passion is easy.

“You’ve got to ask yourself, what is the dream? The dream is that one day people from Mississippi, people from Georgia, people will one day be able to hold hands – and there won’t be no Democrats, no Republicans, no Baptists, no Catholics, no Jews – we’ll all be able to hold hands and sing the words of the old Baptist spiritual ‘Free at Last,’ ” Watkins said. “How far away that is, I don’t know. But in the meantime, we’ve got to keep hoping and we’ve got to keep loving each other.”

Bush said despite his sadness at the sight of the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, his hope is still strong. He believes if King walked the Earth today, he’d be happy and he’d be hurt.

“We’re in the greatest country in the history of man, and you’re going to tell me people are hungry? People are homeless? We still have these race stratifications, and we still have all of this indignity going on in the greatest country God ever made? And what’s going on in the streets of our nation’s Capitol – that’ll bring a tear to a glass eye,” Bush said.

“But then you see the hope and the promise that can be. Although it’s been slow, it’s been steady – the recognition of each person’s humanity and potential to be a glad contributor to the greatest country on the face of the earth. That’s where his hope would come from. And I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t in my heart and in my soul.”

Watkins and Bush both remember when was King was assassinated in great detail.

Bush was 18 and standing on the street of his hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois.

“It was like somebody had snatched you in your chest. He was our hero,” Bush said. “They killed King? This man is about nonviolence and about everybody, not just Blacks – we were just the example he was using. He was talking about the whole country, and people started saying ‘Damn, they killed him too.’ That was catastrophic.”

But Bush believes it was because of King’s life and death that “America is better.”

Watkins considers one of King’s most potent messages to be that from a February 1968 sermon, in which King imagined his funeral, less than two months before it actually occurred.

In that sermon, King urged the congregation not to dwell on his life’s achievements, including his education or his Nobel Peace Prize, but instead, “Say that I was a drum major.”

“Say that I was a drum major for justice,” King said. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

“If you understand what a drum major is,” Watkins said, “a drum major don’t have weapons, but he beats the drum so that people can continue to march.

“A drum major of peace, of righteousness, of love, will make a difference. We don’t have weapons, but we keep beating those drums.”

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