Even though it was more than 70 years ago, Seattle legend Reverend Samuel B. McKinney can still remember the nickname he and his friends gave Martin Luther King Jr. during their days at Morehouse College. “We called him ‘Runt,” McKinney told me during our interview. Indeed, in 1944, when they first met, King couldn’t have been more than 5-foot-7. The soon-to-be-famous civil rights leader had started at Atlanta’s Morehouse College at the age of 15, thanks in large part to the state of Georgia’s educational system, which at the time allowed students to simply take a standardized test in order to skip a grade.
McKinney, now 88, grew up in Cleveland and similar to King, was raised by an intense Baptist minister who did his best to challenge racism in America. “I had met him before going to Morehouse…at our parent’s religious conventions.” Their religious background was how the two young men bonded. Their entire childhood had been conquered by the world of religion. They had yet to form their own worldviews, but while away from their families they were beginning to rebel.
“We were both refugees hoping to escape an assembly of hot air. Sons of preachers all the time. We didn’t want to listen to all that stuff,” McKinney says.
At Morehouse, King attempted to flex his oratorical muscles by competing in speech contests. However, according to McKinney, “He didn’t win a single one of them.”
McKinney had left Cleveland in order to attend Morehouse, which meant more of a separation from his parents. King, however, lived at home, and except for a few trips run by Morehouse to Simsbury, Connecticut, King remained sheltered by the black community along Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. It wasn’t until King attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, that McKinney saw his young friend grow into a man. “There was a process of maturation that had to set in. I think he really came into his own when he was in seminary…he grew up quite a bit. He was able to move away from his own family and become his own person. Not that he wasn’t already.”
Their lives seemed to intersect yet again when Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, announced that it was looking for a minister. This was 1953, and by that point McKinney had settled into life in the North after graduating from Colgate Rochester Divinity School in New York. McKinney had experienced the South through his time at Morehouse, but to preach for a congregation in the dark heart of Alabama was another story. He deeply considered taking the position, but “I asked God if he would follow me into the South, but…” McKinney said with a chuckle that comes with retrospect. “He said he’d only follow me to Cincinnati.”
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Months later, King accepted the position instead, and brought his wife Coretta to their now historic home on Jackson Street in Montgomery, the same home that was bombed during the bus boycott on January 30, 1956.
Eventually, McKinney found his way to Seattle and became the head pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church in 1958. His friendship with King lasted through the years. In 1961, McKinney brought King to Seattle for the only time. On a Friday, after King’s lecture at Garfield High School, McKinney and King went out for barbecue and spent the time remembering Morehouse and the winding roads they traveled to get to where they were. “He loved barbecue. I was showing him around town when I pointed out the place,” McKinney says. “After he spoke, he said he didn’t want to go to anybody’s home, so he said, ‘What about that barbecue place?’" McKinney paused for a moment, remembering how inspired Seattle residents had been upon seeing King in person. “People walked off the street to shake his hand.”
McKinney later said that he and King stayed at Home of Good Bar-B-Que on Yesler Way until four in the morning. The owner kept it open for them and a “fella who worked in security,” McKinney recalled. They talked through the night about their pasts, the inner workings of the civil rights movement and where it was headed. King had already started to receive calls from Sen. Bobby Kennedy. The government had many eyes on him.
“At that time he was considered ‘The Most Dangerous Negro in the Country,’” McKinney says.
King’s sole trip to Seattle would prove to be a turning point in the way he moved throughout the country. “It was the last time he traveled anywhere by himself. There were all kinds of threats to his life.”
McKinney still recalls precisely where he was on April 4, 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. “I [was going] to Philadelphia for a meeting. We flew overnight, and the flight stopped at Kansas City, which gave me a chance to get off the plane and make a call back home…” After McKinney finished his call, he picked up a newspaper. “On the front page was a picture of Dr. King in Memphis…and there was a look on his face that troubled me.” McKinney arrived in Philadelphia early the next morning and the man who picked him up assumed that McKinney had already heard the news. But he hadn’t.
Civil rights marchers in front of the Olympic Hotel in Seattle, 1964; Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History & Industry, Seattle
McKinney was thrown into a whirlwind of radio and television interviews, and he was scheduled to speak at Garfield High School the next day. Before leaving the airport, he overheard a young woman working in a restaurant say, “I could care less,” regarding Dr. King's assassination. McKinney mentioned this during an interview. He knew a lot more people did care, and he saw to it that his friend be remembered in a positive light.
It can be said with confidence that King’s time and connection to Seattle provided enough of a basis that, on February 24, 1986, the King County Council pushed aside its former namesake, William Rufus DeVane King (1786-1853), an Alabama senator and plantation owner, and placed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the official ‘King’ of King County.
And yet, even before King's Nobel Prize in 1964, or his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement; before the protests, or the bus boycott, McKinney knew there was something special about his young friend, despite being a 15-year-old rebellious “runt.” “You could see that he was going to be somebody.”
Patrick Parr has received an Artist Trust Fellowship for his literary work. Other articles have appeared in The Humanist and The Japan Times, among others. Currently he lives with his wife in Bellevue and teaches English as a Second Language at the University of Washington. He is also working on a book about Dr. King's days at Crozer Theological Seminary. patrickparr.com