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New street in Spokane to be named for Martin Luther King Jr. after years of effort

By Yvonne Lopez-Morton

When the Spokane City Council voted in mid-September to rename a new downtown street in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the decision fulfilled efforts of the Rev. Happy Watkins, Ivan Bush and other local civil rights advocates who were determined to establish a lasting, visible legacy in the Inland Northwest for the late faith leader.

Ivan Bush and Happy Watkins
Ivan Bush and Happy Watkins at site of new Martin
Luther King, Jr. Way

The new street, until now referred to as the Riverside Extension, will run from Riverside Ave. through the Riverpoint campus, the site of the Eastern Washington University and Washington State University urban academic centers, as well as the WSU College of Nursing.

Groundbreaking for phase one will be in 2010.  Phase two will continue the road under the Hamilton Street Bridge, behind Union Gospel Mission and Second Harvest to Perry St.  It passes areas representing education, faith and family, which were King’s passions, Happy said.

Happy, who for 23 years has recited from memory King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to thousands of students and at numerous events, including an annual march, sees the new Martin Luther King Jr. Way as the culmination of a community vision that started when President Ronald Reagan designated the third Monday in January as the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

“The ultimate measure of success is not where we stand in good times, but where we stand in moments of controversy and challenge,” Happy, who is pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, said. “This has been a long haul, but because of people like Ivan, who had a dream that we could have a street named after King, we are at this place.”

Ivan, the equal opportunity director for Spokane Public Schools, hopes that Martin Luther King Jr. Way will serve as an agent to move the community closer together so that young and old, people of color and the majority culture will be more considerate of one another.

“Spokane has twice been designated an All American City and that sends a message that we take care of all our citizens and are part of a wider family,” Ivan said. “Having this street will be a constant reminder to all of us to rededicate ourselves to care for one another.”

The vision for Ivan, Happy and others to name a street for King was planted in 1984 with the first march in downtown Spokane.

“Legislation for a national holiday honoring Rev. King was introduced in Congress in 1983, but the official holiday didn’t start until 1986. We were two years ahead in Spokane with our first march,” he said.

Ivan, who was director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Outreach Center from 1979 to 1985 and director of the East Central Community Center from 1985 to 1992, joined with others to talk with community organizations, educators, citizen groups and elected officials about a street designation and without exception the answer was, “It is time.”

He is also grateful for the support he received from higher education.

“All our area colleges wrapped their arms around this initiative,” he said.

The dedication of Martin Luther King Jr. Way is still being coordinated with the Mayor’s office.  In the meantime, Ivan and other community members are looking toward the future and are committed to ensuring that youth voices are included in discussions on how to reinforce King’s message.

“When we put out the clarion call for student involvement at this year’s march in January, many came forward wanting a role,” Ivan said. “We must include youth voices because that will carry on our work for generations.”

Efforts to move the initiative to a final vote before the Spokane City Council required countless hours of meetings initiated by Happy, Ivan and others with community leaders, organizations, elected officials and the city planning department.

The local NAACP, the Martin Luther King. Jr., Family Outreach Center and the Black Ministers Fellowship Union provided fees for the street naming.

“I appreciate that the City Council took this action by a unanimous vote,” said City Council President Joe Shogan. “I was heartened by the fact that not one person appeared before the Council to oppose this. It gave me great satisfaction that the right thing has been done.”

Joe, who has marched in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day walk for many years, said the Council’s vote has great significance not only for Spokane’s black community but also for all minorities in the region.

 “What a wonderful decision for Spokane,” said Betsy Wilkerson, a local businesswoman, community leader and member of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“Imagine, at a time when there are so many economic and social challenges and uncertainties, Spokane realized this was the right time and right thing to do. Our patience was tested, but our prayers have been answered,” she said.

The location of the street in the center of Spokane’s higher education district has not gone unnoticed by black educators in the community who value King’s commitment to education.

“The street was named and located with intention and not put in some forgotten place,” said Bernice Buchanan, an educator with Spokane Public Schools.

“King’s life was about education, and he spoke for everyone, not only the black community,” said Bernice, noting that one of her favorite King mottos is “Learn baby, learn, so you can earn baby, earn.”

For information, call 354-7344.