by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
“The measure of one’s goodness is not only what they do, but what they believe in and who or what they choose to respect. On this day, on March 2, we come together as a community to respect a human being who has given his service to this community, a greater community, tirelessly, an example for us, Reverend McKinney.”
Those were the words of Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell on March 2 when the City of Seattle and Mount Zion Baptist Church honored one of the most prominent civil rights leaders in Seattle’s history. Rev. Dr. Samuel McKinney, 87 years old, received a length of street in his name. The section of 19th Avenue between East Madison and East Union Street will now also be known as Rev. Dr. S. McKinney Avenue.
King County, Washington, takes its name from another civil rights leader, McKinney’s friend and former fellow student at Morehouse College, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This has only been the case for a few years, though. The county was originally named for William Rufus King, the Vice President of the United States with the shortest tenure in the post’s history, a mere 45 days. During what would prove to be the last six weeks of his life, the Oregon territory named one of its most populous counties after a politician who had never visited the region. King County Councilmembers Ron Sims and Bruce Laing first suggested switching the reference to Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1986, but the change wasn’t signed into law until 2005.
Unlike Rufus King, Martin Luther King, Jr. actually did come to King County. His one and only visit, which took place over two days in 1961, was at the behest of Rev. Dr. McKinney. At the time, McKinney had been the pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church for three years, retaining the post until he retired in 1998. McKinney grew up around early civil rights leaders. His own father was also a preacher, serving a Baptist community in Flint, Mich. where many prominent figures visited as guest speakers, including Thurgood Marshall and Philip Randolph. Spending his youth among such people inspired McKinney to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta. This is where he met Dr. King and began his own efforts as a civil rights leader.
McKinney’s work echoes still today in the ongoing fight for equality in Seattle. McKinney himself did not speak at the street sign unveiling on Sunday, but he had many supporters speaking on his behalf. Political figures including Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, Mayor Ed Murray, and King County Executive Dow Constantine offered brief remarks. City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen and Seattle Police Department Interim Chief Harry Bailey were also in attendance.
“Rev. Dr. Samuel B. McKinney has led the fight in this city and in this region for social justice,” said Mr. Constantine, later adding, “Because of his life’s work, our children will live in a place that is more clear and just and free.”
Many people from the religious and civil rights realms of McKinney’s life also spoke. Among them were Carol Peoples-Proctor of the Black Heritage Society of Washington State, Rev. LaVerne Hall of the Washington Foundation, Chris Bennett, Sr. of the Seattle Medium, Gerald Hankerson of the regional NAACP and Rev. Aaron Williams, current senior pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church.
Rev. Hall spoke of McKinney’s impact on the Central District neighborhood, also known as King County Census Tract 88, saying,
“It is a living and breathing depository for all of the art and artifacts, the blood, sweat, and tears of a people going back as far as the 1890s. Census Tract 88 is holy ground.”
However practical it was in the moment, it was hard not to see some symbolic value in those who helped McKinney pull the SDOT cover off of the new street sign. After McKinney had difficulty getting the cover to budge, several elected officials lined up to assist him, officials who are themselves civil rights leaders for whom McKinney paved the way. In his remarks about the legacy of Rev. Dr. McKinney, Mr. Hankerson of the NAACP insisted,
“We hope that, some day, Dr. McKinney’s avenue becomes miles long, not just a single block.”