Thousands of people crowded into Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall on Tuesday morning to say goodbye to the Rev. Dr. Samuel B. McKinney, a trusted leader, beloved comforter and a giant in the area's civil-rights movement.
It was not a goodbye, but a temporary farewell for many of the believers who crowded into Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall on Tuesday morning to share stories and memories of the Rev. Dr. Samuel B. McKinney, a trusted leader, beloved comforter and a giant in the civil rights movement.
“May the Lord bless you real good … now henceforth and forever more,” said his daughter, Rhoda McKinney-Jones, after describing the welcome she believes her father will receive in heaven. “It was the benediction, but it’s not the end.”
There was little time for tears during the memorial, which took on a jubilant air. Attendees rose to their feet, clapped and swayed to the gospel song, “I Didn’t Have No Doubt.”
Eulogies from ministers from across the country were punctuated with jokes and revealing anecdotes that had people howling in agreement.
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McKinney had always encouraged people to “be the light,” and as McCaw Hall dimmed near the conclusion of the ceremony, the audience waved light-up pens. In the promenade, after the memorial had finished, you couldn’t turn in any direction without seeing people wrap each other in warm embraces.
Among the mourners were notables, dignitaries and powerful statesmen, as well as family members, friends and the ordinary, disenfranchised and oppressed people for whom he fought most of his life. One man, a minister, estimated there were no fewer than three hundred fellow religious leaders in attendance.
Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell told those who were gathered to pay their respects that McKinney helped make Seattle what it is. “A mountain of a man … Rev. McKinney built Seattle and this region like no other,” Harrell said.
Former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice said that every conversation with McKinney made him to consider things from other perspectives.
“He made you think and then you knew what you had to do,” Rice said. And further, he said, McKinney left him with an enduring and profound belief that we all must care for each other.
“We must all reach into the darkness and bring others into the light,” Rice said. “And we must make sure that light shines forever and for all time.”
McKinney died on April 7 at the age of 91 in an assisted-living center in Seattle.
Samuel Berry McKinney was born Dec. 28, 1926, in Flint, Michigan, to the Rev. Wade Hampton McKinney and Ruth Berry McKinney.
When he was still young his family moved to Cleveland, where his father was a Baptist pastor who hosted visits from civil-rights leaders such as Thurgood Marshall, who would go on to become the first African-American member of the U.S. Supreme Court.
After serving in the Army Air Forces during World War II, he attended his father’s alma mater, Atlanta’s historically black Morehouse College.
His initial goal was to become an attorney specializing in civil-rights issues. But his path was diverted when a professor explained that the law can be a tool once an injustice is committed, but the influence of religion could potentially prevent oppression in the first place.
After Morehouse, McKinney graduated from New York’s Colgate Rochester Divinity School in 1952. In 1975, he received his doctorate of ministry from Colgate Rochester.
McKinney married Louise McKinney, an educator who shared his commitment to church and community. After heading a church in Rhode Island for several years, the couple came to Seattle and Mount Zion in 1958, where they saw the congregation’s membership swell.
McKinney’s wife died in 2012 after 59 years of marriage.
Though in later years McKinney sometimes expressed disenchantment with the sluggish rate of social enlightenment and change, he believed to his core that “we must never lose our humanity,” said one of his parishioners.
“His overall belief was that we cannot become like those who seek to oppress us,” Ivory Harris, a member of Mount Zion since 1962, said in an earlier interview. “It’s not just the civil-rights struggle, it’s a human-rights struggle. If you don’t take that message to those who seek to oppress you, you’ve already lost the battle.”
With his compelling voice, artful language and his commitment to social justice and equality, McKinney influenced a slew of local institutions. And when influence alone didn’t work, he acted:
He helped launch the city’s first black-owned bank after local banks restricted loans to African Americans. He was an original member on the Seattle Human Rights Commission, which successfully advocated for passage of Seattle’s first fair-housing act. And he co-founded and served as first president of the Seattle Opportunities Industrialization Center, a nonprofit, community-based vocational training center.
Over the years, McKinney took part in scores of civil-rights demonstrations in Seattle, Alabama and Washington, D.C. And in 1961, he talked his friend and college classmate, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., into coming to Seattle for what would be King’s only visit to the city.
McKinney’s actions spread his influence beyond the sanctuary of Mount Zion, one of the area’s oldest and largest African-American churches. Civic officials and activists of different races and religious denominations viewed him as a sounding board and important ally.
The theme of building the region and better lives for its residents was echoed by Metropolitan King County Councilman Larry Gossett at the service. Gossett said McKinney ignited “the entire community to create meaningful social change … He said, ‘We all want to go to heaven, but by golly, we got to make a better life for people’ here on Earth.”
Throughout his life, people had flocked to McKinney to thank him, his daughter, McKinney-Jones said. While in the hospital ailing with pneumonia, nurses told him they’d learned about him in grade school and thanked him for what he meant to Seattle. When he was dying, a line of caregivers lined the hallway “saying thank you, goodnight, take your rest,” she said.
The memorial was a chance for all the communities McKinney touched to express their gratitude, but it also served as a rally to continue his causes.
“It’s not a conclusion. For me, it feels like a victory,” McKinney-Jones said. “We helped him die a dignified death and celebrate his life. I think the work he started will continue.”