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Seattle civil-rights leader Rev. Dr. Samuel B. McKinney dies at 91

By Jack Broom The Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The Rev. Dr. Samuel B. McKinney, the pre-eminent Seattle civil-rights leader and 40-year pastor of the Central Area’s Mount Zion Baptist Church, died Saturday at the age of 91 at an assisted-living center in Seattle.

Dr. McKinney’s deep voice articulated insights on spiritual and civic matters for generations. Guided by the conviction that religious faith requires a commitment to social justice and equality, Dr. McKinney influenced a variety of local institutions.

“He has been a pillar of our community,” said Vivian Phillips, former chair of the Seattle Arts Commission, who was baptized by Dr. McKinney. “He always had such a beautiful way about him. Not only the bass in his voice, which was stunning, but the beauty of his language and his use of words – the gravity of his speaking, which always made me stand a little bit taller.”

Dr. McKinney helped launch the city’s first black-owned bank after local banks restricted loans to African Americans. He served as an original member of the Seattle Human Rights Commission, which successfully advocated for passage of Seattle’s first fair-housing act.

In the 1960s he took part in civil-rights demonstrations in Seattle, Alabama and Washington, D.C. And he talked his college classmate, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – their fathers were pastors and friends – into coming to Seattle in 1961, which would be King’s only visit to the city.

In the mid-1980s Dr. McKinney was arrested while protesting apartheid outside the South African consul’s house in Seattle.

Those actions and more spread his influence far beyond the walls 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.

“He was a pastor, someone people wanted to hold and christen their babies and bury their loved ones,” said Dr. McKinney’s daughter, Lora-Ellen McKinney, who saw her father the day he died. “He valued the continuity of stories.”

Sen. Patty Murray, at the time of Dr. McKinney’s retirement in 1998, hailed him as “a visionary and much respected leader … a tireless advocate for social justice, supporter of youth and proponent of economic development.”

In 2014, the unanimous Seattle City Council and Mayor Ed Murray honorarily renamed several blocks of 19th Avenue near Mount Zion “Rev. Dr. S. McKinney Ave.”

“The push for equal employment, housing and educational opportunities from Dr. McKinney’s bullhorn are issues we still work to solve today,” said City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who helped lead the effort to rename the street.

Faith can sway institutions

Samuel Berry McKinney was born Dec. 28, 1926, in Flint, Michigan, to the Rev. Wade Hampton McKinney and Ruth Berry McKinney.

He was still young when the 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.

Although young Samuel McKinney followed in his father’s footsteps to Atlanta’s all-male and historically black Morehouse College, his initial career goal was to become an attorney, hoping to work on civil-rights issues.

Years later, he explained his career shift by saying a Morehouse professor told him that law can be a powerful tool once an injustice is committed, but that religion can influence people and institutions away from committing the injustices in the first place.

After serving in the Army Air Forces during the last days of World War II, Dr. McKinney graduated from Morehouse College in 1949 and from New York’s Colgate Rochester Divinity School in 1952. In 1975, he received his doctorate of ministry from Colgate Rochester.

In 1976, he co-authored “Church Administration in the Black Perspective,” a book still in use today, through several printings.

In his commitment to church and community, Dr. McKinney was joined by his wife, Louise, who died in 2012 after 59 years of marriage. In addition to her work with the church and other community organizations, she worked as a teacher and principal in Seattle Public Schools.

After heading a church in Rhode Island for several years, the couple came to Seattle and Mount Zion in 1958. Under their leadership, Mount Zion’s congregation more than tripled to 2,500.

Inside and outside the church, Dr. McKinney sought ways to help those in need achieve success and stability. In 1966, he co-founded and served as first president of the Seattle Opportunities Industrialization Center, a nonprofit community-based vocational training center.

Aundre Phillips, who was also baptized by Dr. McKinney, said Dr. McKinney always “encouraged young black youth to do the right thing … when he was around, it was always your responsibility to pull your shoulders back and get your back straight. And you also have a responsibility to the elderly people.”

His mother, Vivian Phillips, said that Dr. McKinney “would not want us to be sad – he would want us to be happy about the life he lived.”

A better Seattle

Over the years, Dr. McKinney served on boards and commissions of many organizations, including the Meredith Mathews East Madison YMCA, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the former Washington Mutual Savings Bank.

He also was the first African-American president of the Church Council of Greater Seattle.

Although racial inequities persist, Dr. McKinney, in a 1993 interview with the Seattle Times, noted progress in some fundamental areas.

“I’ve seen Seattle grow up and mature and see itself in a different way,” he told Times editorial columnist Don Williamson. “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.”

Dr. McKinney is survived by two daughters: Dr. Lora-Ellen McKinney and Rhoda McKinney-Jones. Services have yet to be arranged.

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