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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

For Martin Luther King Day, Spokane organizers adapt to COVID-19 surge for safe celebration

With the omicron variant of COVID-19 surging, in-person events once marked safe by vaccines and negative tests are moving to virtual or being canceled altogether, including – for the second year – Spokane’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day March.

For MLK Day, local organizations founded in King’s honor such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center, are hoping that people will find a way to pay tribute to King’s legacy.

“We always want people to still be able to honor Dr. King’s life and legacy through different service projects,” said Freda Gandy, the executive director of the MLK Center in the East Central Neighborhood.

Spokane’s annual march usually ends at the Spokane Convention Center with the now-retired New Hope Baptist pastor, the Rev. Percy “Happy” Watkins, reciting King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech as a tribute.

The Rev. James Watkins, the current pastor of New Hope, takes pride in his childhood memories, remembering his father who worked during the witching hours and waited until the Watkins children drifted to sleep to perfect the speech.

“I was thinking he’s got to mess up at least once, I’ve heard that speech a minimum one hundred, maybe a thousand times,” the younger Watkins said. “Not once.”

But as a lifelong Spokane resident, Watkins always admired how MLK Day events would bring the city together in the name of King’s legacy of unity and equality.

“It was really a time for unification and to celebrate where we come from and get a word about where we need to go,” Watkins said of usual local MLK Day events. “So this time of the year is almost magical. When you go into the marches, you see that everybody is enjoying themselves, everybody in a brotherhood, a sisterhood together.”

For Gandy, sentiments like the Watkinses’ are reasons the celebrations still need to safely go on.

“On our Facebook page and website, we put some ideas out there on how people can still serve even though we’re not gathering,” she said.

Service projects vary from the ongoing food drive to financial donations. The MLK Service Center is asking for donations of brown rice, wheat bread and pasta noodles.

Donations can be dropped off at the MLK Center between 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. until Jan. 31. With a raging pandemic during the last nine weeks of winter, people can also donate items to the winter packages the center is piecing together. The MLK Center is asking for oral hygiene items, disposable face masks, adult-sized socks and hats for those in need.

Since January is also National Book Month, Gandy is asking for MLK Day observers to donate diverse children’s books for the center’s preschool classroom. The annual walk has transformed into a virtual 5K Run for Justice.

“That’s strictly on your own time,” Gandy said. “You can walk or run in your own neighborhood, your local gym, the treadmill, whatever you’d like to do.”

Patrons can also donate to the Lasting Legacy Campaign. This year’s donations will go to the MLK Center’s food bank. The goal is to raise $25,000. The center is asking for donations of $27 or more since 2022 marks the 27th anniversary of the celebration.

With these safer events as alternatives to in-person fellowship, Gandy wanted to emphasize that celebrating King’s life and mission for equality doesn’t have to take place the third Monday of every January alone.

“I want people to recognize that this outreach center is out here 365 days a year,” Gandy said. “You can participate throughout the entire year by volunteering here and engaging in the various programs that we offer to the community. I also encourage people to work with us and make sure that we’re accountable to make sure our programs and services are inclusive of all people.”

With safety precautions enforced, Pullman’s CORE organization will be holding an in-person march on Martin Luther King Day. King’s family asked that any groups organizing events in honor of King advocate for the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Both laws aim to ensure equal voting rights for all Americans, a pushback to voting suppression laws passed in states such as Georgia.

“In solidarity with the family of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Palouse CORE would like to hold an event highlighting the need for passing voting rights legislation at the federal level,” the organization said in a news release. “ (Martin Luther King III) has requested that in lieu of the usual day of service in celebration of his father’s life, we gather and march to support the passage of the two voting rights bills now stalled in the U.S. Senate.”

After the march, Rob and Carol Ndambuki, Jeff Guillory, the former equity director at Washington State University and Pullman City Councilwoman Megan Guido will be speaking about the Freedom to Vote Act as well as King and his contributions to equality.