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‘He is the reason why I dream’: Martin Luther King Jr. mural a sense of pride in the Central District

A Central District resident continues her mission to protect the neighborhood's Martin Luther King Jr. mural.

SEATTLE — The Central District, Seattle's historically Black neighborhood, has seen a lot of change in recent years, but the determination of a longtime resident has not wavered.

It is the area where Erika White and Brigette Johnson grew up.

"This is where you know most of the Black businesses used to be," said Johnson.

The neighborhood's Black population exceeded 70% during the 1970s, according to research from the University of Washington. But today, the percentage of Black residents in the neighborhood is in the teens, and the Central District has seen drastic changes.

"More people have moved down south just because of affordability," explained Johnson.

But as new buildings and businesses moved in, Erika White was determined to stay.

"We can't change a lot of how the neighborhood has changed, but [what] we can do is put our stamp and put our brand on the changes that has already happened in the neighborhood," said White.

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She did exactly that in 2014 when the new Fat's Chicken and Waffles moved into the building on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Cherry Street. White was offered the general manager position and said yes under one condition.

"That mural and who he was and what he represents, it is like, that had to stay," said White.

What White was referring to was the 17-foot mural of Martin Luther King Jr. on the side of a building. 

With her request granted, White started the new job.

"To have him on the wall is a reminder for me to keep dreaming," she said.

But White could see the mural needed work.

"It was 20 years of sun hitting it, so it had a nice fade turn on it,” said White. “So, it needed a good touching up.”

That was the beginning of her mission for the mural.

White learned James Crespinel originally painted the mural in 1995 before he moved out of the country. White was able to track Crespinel down, and KING 5 was able to, too. He spoke with us from his art studio in Mexico.

"The piece was always important to me," explained Crespinel.

The piece was so important he agreed to travel to Seattle and touch up the mural for free.

“[Crespinel] was just generous enough, he was like, you guys just buy the paint and I'll do it," said White. "It was funny, too, because as he was doing it, you have people driving by and they're like, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’" 

"Don't you touch that -- and nobody realized that first of all I was the original artist that did it, and that I was redoing it," explained Crespinel.

That's when White realized those reactions to the tribute for the civil rights leader, dedicated to fighting for racial equality and justice, meant as much to the neighborhood as it did to her.

RELATED: 11 powerful Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quotes that remind us of his message

"He is a dreamer, you know,” said White. “He is the reason why I dream, why I have done the things I have wanted to do in life because you've got to dream and dream big.”

Johnson also has a connection to the mural.

"It makes me feel welcome, you know, when you see somebody who looks like you, when you just know that this is your neighborhood, makes me feel good," said Johnson.

Today, White still runs Fat's Chicken and Waffles. She is proud to lead a Black-owned business in a neighborhood that keeps changing, but not without her and some of the other people who have long called Central District home.

"Now you have other restaurants, like the Central Café and Juice Bar, and you are talking about Black women ran, owned, and operated businesses," said White.

"I don’t want anybody to forget what it was," said Johnson. "That’s why I feel blessed to be here." 

For White, that means keeping Dr. King in place of prominence.

"I'm protecting [the mural] as long as I have this space,” said White. “And you know, after that, if I'm not here, I'll pass it on to whoever else, like, it's your responsibility to make sure that that mural gets taken care of.”

White sees a portrait that's a source of pride in a neighborhood that knows the importance of this leader's legacy.

Mural vandalized 

That same mural of Dr. King was vandalized sometime between Jan. 16 and Jan. 17.

The word "rapist" was painted over the mural with two arrows pointing at Dr. King and "-MalcomX" painted underneath.

"The hate is visible," White said. "It's disappointing. It's sad. And it feels very personal too."