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King’s words inspire people today

By Mary Stamp

Part of the power behind the Rev. Percy Happy Watkins’ leadership comes from the many proverbs he has committed to memory to share as needed to lend an insight.

Happy Watkins
The Rev. Percy Happy Watkins

He is most known in the region for passionately reciting words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., especially his “I Have a Dream” speech.  Happy makes King’s words alive today.

He also has truisms from his grandmother and quotes picked up along the road of life to lead people by reminding them of insights to make them pause and think.

The Washington Association of Churches is honoring him with one of their four annual ecumenical and interfaith justice leadership awards, the one designated for an Eastern Washington leader.  Awards go to individuals who put their faith into action for justice and understanding.

Alice Woldt, director of the WAC, which presented the other awards at its annual dinner in Seattle, decided to make the presentation to Happy at the Eastern Washington Legislative Conference, Saturday, Jan. 22, at the Cathedral of St. John in Spokane, to share his recognition with the faith community of this region.

Commenting on leadership, Happy has said: “Some people make things happen.  Some people watch things happen.  Some people ask, ‘What happened?’”

Happy started as pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in 1990. He said the church’s call was for him to serve the community, not just the congregation, which ranges from 40 to 60 members as people come and go from the area.

So he has worked in the community to improve the correctional system, police department, school district and youth programs, especially addressing racial issues.  He has also served on ecumenical bodies to bring reconciliation among churches and faiths.

Connection with the correctional system passed on to him from his predecessor at New Hope, the Rev. Jim Sims, who led services at Pine Lodge Correctional Facility Sunday afternoons and at Geiger Sunday evenings, and led a Wednesday Bible study at Pine Lodge.  Happy continued that work and then participated in a program that allowed churches to bring prisoners to their services.  They did that for three years until they realized some prisoners’ minds “were not on the Lord.”

He has found that blacks, who are about two percent of Spokane’s population, make up 18 to 25 percent of the people who are incarcerated, on trial, on probation or waiting to be sentenced.

“We need to turn those figures around,” he asserted.  “Education is the means to do that.”
Happy, who has received many awards over the years for his contributions to the community, has twice been president of the Spokane Ministers Fellowship, a monthly gathering composed mostly of pastors of predominantly black churches.

“We work together on police and school issues,” he said.  “We also put on events to break barriers of religious differences as we work together to address common concerns such as the learning and graduation gaps.

“One thing I learned from Dr. King is to sit at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood, put the issues on the table and discuss them to gain understanding,” Happy said.

In 1986 when there were no black police officers, pastors and community leaders met with the police chief to learn why.  They found that white men and women scored higher on the civil service exam and were accepted immediately into training.  Hispanic, Native American and blacks passed the test, but were often in the bottom third.  Test scores expired after two years before all candidates in the pool entered the academy, so those with lower scores had to retake it.

Examining further, the leaders learned the civil service manual says if an ethnic population is not represented on the police force but a member of that group passes the civil service test, that person can float into the pool. So in 1986, six black, two Hispanic and one Native American went through the Police Academy and became officers.  Happy’s son, Percy, was one.

Church and community leaders also met with police after gangs started coming from California.  Police began profiling local black teens.  If more than two or three young black men were standing on a street or driving in a car, police stopped them. There were many instances of people being stopped and searched, including one of Happy’s sons.

 “It was a tense time for the community of color and police,” said Happy, a member, and past vice president and president of the NAACP, a partner in police and school challenges.

Former University of Idaho President Tim White asked him and other black pastors and leaders to help after a black football player was shot by two black men from Seattle.  To bridge relationships, Happy contracted as a consultant to visit the campus for seven weeks and then to continue going there for three years until the UI hired a multicultural specialist.  Three years ago, Tim awarded him the President’s Medallion for his work.

Because pastors often know parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles of school children, they have access to their homes and often have the trust of family, so they can mediate when a child misbehaves or parents feel their children are not treated fairly.

“If families can’t go to PTA, we as pastors can do that, because it takes a village to raise a child,” said Happy, who sometimes goes to schools and reads to children.  Wherever there is a need and I can help, that’s where I will go.”

Happy Watkins
The Rev. Happy Watkins, New Hope Baptist Church

To overcome the achievement gap, Happy works to assure that children and youth of color graduate, take college-prep classes or attend trade schools, and are informed of the variety of career choices.  He helps organize a trade fair for teens at East Central Community Center.  Along with vision and hope, he said youth of color need meaningful jobs.

Through the South Hill Leadership Group, he has worked with principals, counselors and community people to improve the learning environment for children, reaching them early so they are not frustrated in later school years.  He meets with students and advises staff and teachers about ways to meet their basic needs so they can learn.  In December, he talked with a student who was paying attention and found he was cold at home.

The oldest of 10 children growing up in a poor family in the Bronx amid 2.5 million diverse people—block after block like his street with thousands of blacks and whites, Puerto Ricans, Irish, Poles, Italians and Jews—he was shocked by the quiet and seeming wilderness of Spokane when he, at 19, arrived in 1961 with the Air Force.

Within a month, he was attending Morningstar Baptist Church, which lightened the depression, homesickness and loneliness he felt at first.  There he met his wife, Etta, in 1962 and married her in 1963. Discharged from the Air Force in 1965 after serving 18 months in Okinawa, he decided to stay in Spokane.

Here he has made an impact in civil rights, race relations and ecumenical ties, as he and Etta have reared their four sons.

In the early 1960s, the height of cultural unrest after the 1956 bus boycott in Montgomery, Little Rock’s Central High School’s 1957 integration and civil rights freedom riders, Spokane challenged unequal housing access.  When he and Etta first looked for housing, it had been hard to find anything outside East Central, Geiger Heights and Rogers neighborhoods.

Teams testing for bias in sales and rentals finally broke open the housing market in the late 1960s so blacks could live anywhere.

Happy’s work with youth began in his early years in Spokane.  He has been involved with the Martin Luther King, Jr., Family Outreach Center for many of its 40 years. 

The Rev. Dick Leon of First Presbyterian Church and pastors on Spokane’s East side formed a committee in 1961 to bring children and youth off neighborhood streets.  They created a drop-in center, offering activities at Bethel African American Episcopal Church.  The program grew.  They remodeled Bethel’s basement and it became the Martin Luther King Center.

When it outgrew that space in the 1980s, Ivan Bush, who was director, moved the program to the fire station on Sherman that had just closed.

The dream grew as the community expanded and remodeled the building, which they lease from the city for $1 a year.

Now called the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center, the program provides daycare, parenting education and family services, before- and after-school, summer, literacy and tutoring programs.  Programs encourage children to stay in school, prepare for college, gain job skills and contribute to the community.

“The caring children receive there enhances their learning,” said Happy, who has served 10 years on and off on the board. “As little things we have done have mushroomed, the budget has mushroomed.  Now the center plans a capital campaign to expand facilities to serve more children and families.”

The center has also been central in organizing 21 years of marches on Martin Luther King Day.

Happy said 54 participated in the first march from the county courthouse to the federal building in 1989.  The march has grown to nearly 4,000 participants, gathering at the INB Performing Arts Center and marching to Riverpark Square for entertainment and a community resource fair.

Ivan Bush and Happy Watkins

Happy Watkins and Ivan Bush, a colleague in projects on education, police, civil rights and Martin Luther King Day. Behind them a new street to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., will extend from Riverside into the education district.

Happy and Ivan Bush, the primary organizers, coordinate a team of volunteers.  They also convinced the city to name a street to honor Martin Luther King, Jr.

Besides the influence of biblical proverbs and Christ’s walk, he said his life turned around when he read: “Life is in session.  The question is, are you present?”

Happy’s knack for memorizing began with reciting speeches and verses for Christmas, Easter and Mother’s Day children’s programs in the Methodist church his family attended.  Because he was not athletic, teachers at Alfred E. Smith Vocational High School asked him to enter two speaking contests.  He placed first in the Bronx and third in New York City.

After Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, his speech became popular.  A woman at Hutton Elementary School asked Happy to read “I Have a Dream.”

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a law establishing Martin Luther King Day on the third Monday of January.  When it was first observed in 1986, former Washington Governor Booth Gardner traveled around the state to honor King.

Lydia Sims, then president of Spokane’s Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), arranged for the governor to come to a luncheon at the Ridpath and asked Happy to read the speech.

“Sunday after church at Calvary Baptist, I shut myself in a room from 2 p.m. to 3 a.m., memorizing the speech,” he said.

When the emcee announced to dignitaries that he would read the speech and he recited it, complete with emotional climaxes, people were excited, teary and emotional, he said.
Things happened for Happy because of giving the speech.

Happy Watkins giving MLK Speech

The Rev. Happy Watkins recites “I Have a Dream” at the
Martin Luther King Day rally in 2007.

He has given it at Fairchild, Spokane area elementary, middle and high schools.  Soon he was asked to give it from Genesee, Idaho, to Cashmere, Wash., at Spirit Lake, Coeur d’Alene, Rathdrum, Sandpoint and Lewiston schools; at Creston, Wilbur, Moses Lake and Clarkston schools.  He gives it at many churches and at universities around the region.
In Cashmere, children of farm workers and orchard owners go to school together and get along well.  He was moved to recite it to those children who were living into the dream.
At Sandpoint, teachers joined the children to hear “I Have a Dream.”  Afterwards, some asked for his address. Reluctantly he gave it.  A few days later, a package arrived at his home, filled with 90 letters typed on 8 ½ by 11 paper, thanking him for coming.

“I keep them by my desk, and whenever I feel discouraged, I read one,” said Happy.
Now he gives the speech 30 to 40 times a year in the two weeks around the celebration of Martin Luther King Day and during Black History Month.  Along with reciting the speech, Happy teaches children, teens and adults about segregation, civil rights and life.

“I tell about separate facilities, the bus boycott and freedom riders,” he said.  “From reading many books on Martin Luther King’s life and speeches, I learned that keys to his life were his family, home and kitchen table.”

As King’s parents did for him, Happy hopes to instill self esteem and help students lift their sights for their lives.

“A setback is a setup for a comeback,” he told students in Sandpoint, which has a high rate of teen pregnancy and substance abuse:  “You need to work harder to define your goals and go where you need to go to achieve them.”

Over the years, he has performed many weddings for young people who heard him talk about the family, the home and the kitchen table.

Sometimes through weddings and funerals, he said, God and “the angel watching over me have guided me around dangers seen and unseen.”  Sometimes an honorarium comes just when he needs it.

When he says, “if it is to be, it’s up to me,” he means with God’s help. “I know God lives, and I depend on God,” he proclaims.

Happy’s journey into ministry grew through his life-long involvement in church.

After leaving the Air Force, he worked six years in a grocery store, learning to treat every customer with respect, regardless of age or how much they spent.

Those years, he also drove a school bus and did school maintenance in the summer.  That started him on a five-year stint of playing Santa, and jovially addressing children’s questions because he was a black Santa.

Traveling as a salesman—selling life insurance, copy machines, women’s cosmetics and pharmaceuticals—in North Idaho and Western Montana, he also learned to defuse racial encounters.

In 1973, when he went into a restaurant in Bonners Ferry with a colleague, he said, “the place stopped.  Everyone turned and looked at me.”  Happy added that it seemed the pancake the cook was flipping stopped mid-air.

“It was curiosity, not hostility.  I was the first black person they had seen,” he said.
He puts people at ease, building trust just by being friendly.

“When I met people as a salesman, I asked where they grew up and what their interests were to break down distrust,” he said.

In 1981, he followed his dream and opened a restaurant in Shadle, serving barbecue favorites.  Naive about business, however, he closed it after two years and has spent years paying back taxes.

A minister in Seattle who knew of his interest in ministry helped him restart the Sharon Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, where he served from 1982 to 1985 becoming licensed, a deacon, an elder and then a full pastor—earning $300 in four years.

After five years as assistant pastor at Calvary Baptist, mentored by the Rev. C. W. Andrews, he went to New Hope Baptist.

The last two of the 12 years Happy worked in security at Deaconess, he took clinical pastoral education (CPE) training.  He served a year as chaplain at Deaconess and several years as chaplain and patient advocate at Holy Family Hospital.

He served on the former Spokane Christian Coalition Board when it started Nightwalk Ministry in downtown bars, the Interstate Task Force on Human Relations and The Fig Tree.  He now serves on The Fig Tree Board.

Happy went by his first name, Percy, until he was 14.  Then, learning his middle initial “H” stood for Happy, he chose to go by that name, put aside his childhood shyness, and since then has lived into his name.

For information, call 535-1336.


Copyright © January 2011 - The Fig Tree