A Fighter For Fairness In A Fair Northern City

ON Friday morning, Dec. 2, 1955, E. D. Nixon called the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. Nixon, a regional officer in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a leader of the local and state NAACP chapters, called about a woman named Rosa Parks who had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus.

Nixon's call was to the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and what transpired shaped the U.S. civil rights movement. It is odd how history picks certain people for certain tasks and how their preparedness often is shaped by where and how they grew up.

The Rev. Samuel Berry McKinney received a letter identical to one that brought King to Montgomery. Both King and McKinney were the sons of well-known and respected Baptist ministers. Both were graduates of Morehouse University in Atlanta and both were recent seminary graduates.

As was the custom, the letters were sent to the fathers inquiring about the interest of their sons in the job of minister. King responded and got the job. McKinney did not respond. He had reservations about the South.

"I asked God if he would go south with me all the way from Cleveland to Montgomery," McKinney joked. "The answer I received was South, yes, but only as far as Cincinnati.

"I had no Southern roots except for college and an abbreviated stay in the military," said McKinney in a more serious vein. "I had no theory of nonviolence and was not committed to it at the time. Years later, King and I discussed how nonviolence was a strategy for survival in the South.

"Growing up in Cleveland, I always thought you could strike back. In the '30s when Joe Louis would win a fight, we'd go out into the streets and celebrate. In the South, blacks couldn't let on in public that they enjoyed it."

Maybe it was the difference in environment and temperament that made King uniquely suited to lead the struggle in Montgomery and equipped McKinney to take on the challenge of pastoring Seattle's Mount Zion Baptist Church for the past 35 years.

"Attending Morehouse was my first time in the Deep South. I had not lived under such a rigid system of segregation," said McKinney. "There was racism both North and South. But in the South, it didn't matter how close you got, just as long as you didn't get too big. In the North, it didn't matter how big you got, just as long as you didn't get too close."

McKinney treasures his time at Morehouse, despite Jim Crow laws that let shoe salesmen throw shoes at him without asking his shoe size, or later, let German prisoners of war eat in restaurants that denied admittance to him and the other African-American servicemen who guarded them.

"It was no accident that Martin Luther King and others were touched with the gospel of social responsibility," said McKinney. "You couldn't go there and not embrace that commitment. Morehouse president Benjamin Mays saw to that."

It was partially the Morehouse philosophy that changed McKinney's original intent to become an attorney. It was that and the way his father, Wade Hampton McKinney - a Morehouse graduate, who pastored the Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland - led a church that "ministered to the community."

McKinney grew up hearing speakers in his father's church like then-NAACP attorney and later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Walter White, who was the outspoken NAACP executive secretary from 1931-1955.

"I heard them and I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer," said McKinney.

McKinney entered Morehouse in 1944. He was 17 and in the same freshman class as King Jr., who was then 15. McKinney turned 18 in December and was drafted. He returned to college in 1946 after the war ended.

"I took a required class on the Bible from a professor named George D. Kelsey," said McKinney. "He told us the law can only operate after some act or deed has been perpetrated, that thought precedes action and religious intervention can and should come before an act is committed."

It was McKinney's older brother, Wade Jr., who went to law school and McKinney who pastored the Olney St. Baptist Church in Providence, R.I., after graduating from Colgate Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y.

He pursued and got the job in Providence, rather than Montgomery, and came to Seattle three years later in 1958 to Mount Zion. The numerous plaques that fight for space on his crowded office wall are partial testament to the success his "up North" approach has had in the Pacific Northwest.

A credit union, day care and kindergarten bear Mount Zion's name and are accomplishments he is proud of. But it is his stature in the community as tireless fighter for fairness that earned the respect and influence he commands.

He did a lot of that fighting in Seattle over fair housing and job discrimination and even the right for black babies to be buried in Washelli Cemetery - something not allowed when he moved here.

It was to McKinney and Mount Zion that members of the Korean business community came in the aftermath of last year's civil disturbances in Los Angeles. They came to talk about better relationships with Seattle's African-American community.

His name on a project, committee or delegation has long ensured thoughtful, no-nonsense consideration of crucial community concerns.

"I've seen Seattle grow up and mature and see itself in a different way," said McKinney. "I've tried to be associated with helping and would like to believe Seattle is a better, more-livable place because I've been here 35 years."

Seattle is better for the Rev. Samuel Berry McKinney being here and also lucky because he was partial to northern exposure.

The celebration of McKinney's 35th anniversary begins today with a 6 p.m. dinner and concert at Mount Zion. Tomorrow, there will be a 6 p.m. banquet at the Westin Hotel, with Gov. Mike Lowry as the scheduled speaker. On Sunday, a reception will be held after the 10:45 a.m. service. For more information, call the church at 322-6500. Don Williamson's column appears Friday, Sunday and Wednesday on editorial pages of The Times.