When King came to town

Seattle Times staff reporter

Samuel B. McKinney

THIRTY-TWO YEARS AGO, the Rev. Samuel B. McKinney used his personal connections and cashed in all earned favors to get an old college friend to come to the Northwest for a visit.

McKinney was then new kid on the block, an idealistic young minister who moved from the East Coast three years earlier to take over the leadership of Mount Zion Baptist Church. And he was full of ideas.

His most ambitious was to invite the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he had known since the two were freshmen - both of them minister's sons - at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

"He had never been to this city, I felt that we needed to hear him," McKinney said.

In his cluttered office, McKinney, now 67 and still the pastor of Mount Zion, recently reminisced about the invitation, the resulting controversy, King's brief stay in November 1961 and its long-term impact on the city and its African-American community.

It was to be the only time King set foot in Seattle.

THE SEEDS FOR KING'S VISIT were planted the year before when a group of ministers rallied in support of King's efforts to fight segregation in the South.

"We sent him a $3,000 check, unsought, unrequested and unsolicited," McKinney said. "Later he had his father thank me for him. Later, he said what do you want? We said we want you to come here - that isn't why we sent the check to you, but now that you asked, we'd like you to come to the Northwest, which he did."

King came as part of a lecture series presented by the Brotherhood of Mount Zion Baptist Church, a program McKinney started. Knowing the church's facilities at 1634 19th Ave. would be too small to accommodate the number of people who would turn out to see King, the church leaders looked for other venues.

At the time the city was caught up in preparations for the Seattle World's Fair, which opened the spring of the following year. The old War Memorial Auditorium, which would have been the preferred choice, was being converted into a concert-convention hall.

Church leaders turned to the First Presbyterian Church, on Seventh Avenue and Spring Street, which could accommodate 3,000 people, the minimum McKinney expected for the event. In August a tentative agreement was reached to rent the facility.

Martin Luther King Jr.

THE NEWS OF KING'S VISIT was enthusiastically greeted in the African-American community. King was then only 32, but he was already the undisputed leader in the fight for civil rights. "He was considered, at that time, the most radical of all African-American voices on the scene," McKinney said.

He was also a very busy man. In the fall of 1961, King announced an ambitious effort by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to register a majority of the South's 5 million eligible black voters. Just two weeks before coming to Seattle, he was in England, lecturing in London.

"It was an exciting thing," said Yvonne Beatty, then a member of Mount Zion's choir. "We had been following his career from day one and we had a lot of respect and curiosity. We wanted to hear him. It was wonderful that we could be face to face with him."

But not everyone was happy about the invitation.

The more conservative members of the African-American community worried about possible troubles that might come with a King visit, McKinney said.

OVER THE COURSE OF THE FOLLOWING month, McKinney said he received several phone calls threatening harm to King, and to McKinney and his family. Members of the congregation who worked at Boeing reported finding anti-King material surreptitiously left on their desks.

While race relations in Seattle had none of the turmoil seen in the South, racism was still a fact of life for many of the city's minorities.

"A lot of people thought it was better than it was," McKinney said. "It was better than some of the places many African Americans came from, but it certainly wasn't the promised land. On the surface it looked good, but you could detect more subtle strains of racism."

McKinney remembers that Washelli Cemetery segregated the black infants in its Babyland section, and African Americans also faced widespread discrimination, particularly in housing, and in employment.

In mid-October, just weeks before King's scheduled arrival and shortly after materials about his lecture were circulated, First Presbyterian Church canceled the oral agreement to rent the sanctuary to Mount Zion. McKinney was notified in a letter from the church's rental committee that the cancellation was due to construction work and other commitments.

McKinney quickly denounced the move as "prejudice of an extreme conservatism, religious or racial." Today the word he uses for First Presbyterian's action is "racist."

The church leaders immediately denied the charges. Arthur E. Simon, the clerk of First Presbyterian's leadership group, said Mount Zion had "proceeded on a mistaken idea." The Rev. Ralph Turnbull, the church's pastor, said the accusation was ridiculous because the church had blacks in its membership, its Sunday school and its employ.

McKinney and five members of the brotherhood appealed the decision at a meeting of First Presbyterian's leaders. Simon said church rules dictate that the sanctuary could be used only for religious meetings and that Mount Zion had advertised it as a lecture. They also questioned the solicitation to underwrite the lecture costs. McKinney responded that patrons would have reserved seats but admission would be free. Finally, Simon objected to having the proceeds go not to Mount Zion's building fund but to King's enterprises.

"They would not admit it was a matter of race or philosophy, but tried to make it a procedural thing," McKinney said. "They offered to pay the expenses we had incurred to that point. We refused."

NEWS OF FIRST PRESBYTERIAN'S ACTION spread - and so did reaction.

The Christian Friends for Racial Equality criticized the cancellation, and Robert B. Shaw, pastor of the Grace Methodist Church, called it "the most deplorable action by any Christian church in Seattle in many years." The Baptist Ministers Conference of Seattle and Vicinity also protested the cancellation. The Capitol Hill Ministerial Association, meanwhile, issued a commendation to Mount Zion for bringing King to Seattle. The Plymouth Congregational Church offered the use of its facility for a reception following the lecture, which was moved to another downtown facility, the Eagles Auditorium.

The harshest slap to First Presbyterian came just before King's arrival, when the Presbytery of Seattle commended King to its member churches. The Presbytery also directed its ministerial relations committee to investigate the circumstances of the canceled agreement after Turnbull, First Presbyterian's pastor, refused to discuss the matter on the floor of the Presbytery, saying he had not been told he would be called on for a statement.

The wire services carried news of the controversy across the country and McKinney said he got a call from King asking him what was going on. McKinney reassured him, and they agreed that publicity over the controversy actually had benefited them in the long run.

While First Presbyterian developed cold feet about King, others quickly jumped on the bandwagon and invited him to speak - among them Garfield High School Principal Frank Hanawalt.

BUT HANAWALT SOON came under fire. One parent protested to the School Board that King was "a controversial figure known to be associated with causes inimical to the United States," a reference to rumors circulated by King detractors linking him to communist causes. On the day of King's arrival, however, the School Board refused to interfere with the Garfield appearance. Superintendent Ernest W. Campbell said the Seattle schools did not shy away from controversial subjects. Lyle Goss, a board member, asked: "What in the world today isn't controversial?"

Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Seattle Wednesday evening on Nov. 8, 1961. By the time his plane was greeted by a small group of supporters, his Seattle itinerary had become packed with public appearances, including talks at the University of Washington and Temple de Hirsch's forum-lecture series.

McKinney, who was his host and escort during the visit, said it was the last time King traveled alone. King said there had been bomb threats on some planes and threats on his life. He also told McKinney that in Chicago and Birmingham he had spotted men who appeared to be following him. While standing alone on the stage, he saw them moving toward him, but when someone came out on the stage to join King, they vanished.

As a security precaution, McKinney made arrangements for a man to serve as chauffeur and bodyguard.

ON THURSDAY, WHEN MCKINNEY went to pick up King at the Olympic Hotel (now the Four Seasons Olympic) to take him to the University of Washington, King was on the phone talking to Robert Kennedy.

"The Kennedys had not initially been involved in the black struggle, but once Kennedy became president he tried to co-opt it, and so there was a little struggle there," McKinney said. "It was a friendly conversation, but there was a slight edge."

At the old Meany Hall (which has since been torn down and replaced), King spoke to more than 2,000 students. His lunch-time lecture was titled "Segregation and the Civil Liberties: Implications for Students," and in it King called on President Kennedy to use executive order to declare all segregation unconstitutional.

King talked about the role young people played in the civil-rights struggle and discussed the student sit-in movement and the freedom rides.

"The student movements have done more to save the soul of the nation than anything I can think of," King told his audience. A reporter covering the event said King "had the audience in his palm." He was greeted with roaring applause, and finished to a standing ovation. Afterward, he was surrounded by well-wishers and autograph seekers.

That night his speaking tour continued with a lecture at Temple de Hirsch.

In the few hours King was free, he visited with fraternity brothers who lived in the area and saw family friends.

KING'S SECOND FULL DAY in Seattle was even busier, starting with two morning assemblies at Garfield High School, which had the largest number of African-American students of the city's high schools.

He called for brotherhood and urged young people to do "creative" protest to break down racial segregation and discrimination.

"There was an inspirational theme underlying most of his speeches," McKinney recalled. "He did a motivational talk to the young people at Garfield exhorting them to make something of themselves and their lives."

Beatty, whose daughter and niece attended Garfield, said the two young women were in awe of King. When one of her niece's white classmates said to her that King was her leader, she corrected her: "That's our leader," she replied.

"She was just amazed that others could think otherwise," Beatty said.

The main event of King's visit to Seattle was his lecture at the old Eagles Auditorium, at Seventh Avenue and Union Street, which drew supporters from as far away as Spokane and Canada.

Beatty, who was part of the choir that sang the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," remembers the auditorium was packed. The building was used primarily for dances, so the church had to rent the chairs.

"The hall was shaking - literally," Beatty said.

The speech King gave was about the struggles of common, ordinary people in the South, stories his predominantly African-American audience could easily relate to since many of them had come from that part of the country.

"When he spoke, you could hear a pin drop. That was how quiet and receptive the audience was," Beatty said.

AFTER THE EAGLES LECTURE and reception, King asked McKinney if they could go to a barbecue restaurant McKinney had pointed out earlier.

"He had been on a pretty fast track and he had been wined and dined in some pretty fancy places," McKinney said. "He said, `Now I don't want to go to anybody's home, or any fancy place, I want to go up there.' So that's where he went."

McKinney called the owner of the restaurant, Mitchell's Bar-be-cue, and asked them to stay open a little later.

"We stayed there till about three in the morning and he ate two helpings of everything they had on the menu."

McKinney said they mostly talked about old times and told jokes.

"My wife said that the two of us tried to outlie each other," McKinney said, smiling at the memory. "We were just having a good time."

As they sat there, people walked in from off the street to shake his hand, and King spent time talking to them. Later, after King's death, a man asked for McKinney's help in getting money to go to Atlanta for the funeral. When asked why he was so determined to go, he reminded McKinney that he was at the restaurant the night King stopped by. He remembered being made to feel welcome as he stood there and listened to King talk.

King's visit to Seattle ended a few hours later. He got back to his hotel room around 4 o'clock Saturday morning, and later missed his flight to Atlanta, which was set to leave around 8 a.m. McKinney switched him to the next plane.

"He came away singing our praises," McKinney said. "He was impressed by the progressive attitude he saw in the city, especially in the African-American community."

KING ALSO MADE an impression on Seattle.

"His visit left a good feeling in the community," McKinney said. "People were excited, motivated, turned up, ready to take the world on. It had that kind of effect."

The long-term effect was that it enabled members of the local African-American community to commit themselves to joining the struggles here, McKinney said.

"I think it encouraged us to follow his direction," Beatty said. "His influence directed the routes that we took in Seattle. The marches that we had in Seattle were all peaceful forms of protest."

Said McKinney: "He was the right man at the right time at the right place with the right message."

King, who had a standing invitation to revisit the city, was never able to take up that offer. His wife, Coretta, came when she toured the West Coast as a singer and so did other leaders of the civil-rights movement, such as Andrew Young and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

"His schedule never permitted him to return, and I guess he had to go where the heat was the hottest," McKinney said. For the few remaining years of his life before he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, that heat only got hotter in many parts of the country.

This story originally ran in The Seattle Times Jan. 16, 1994.