Then and now: Two pastors talk about the struggle for equality
IN 1958, JUST AS THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENTin the South was starting to gain national attention, two pastors moved to Seattle to take over new assignments: the Rev. Samuel McKinney at the predominately black Mt. Zion Baptist Church, and the Rev. Dale Turner at the predominately white University Congregational Church.
A year or two later, Turner invited McKinney to speak at University Congregational; that visit was followed by a number of informal meetings between the two and a third pastor, John Hurst Adams (who has since left the area), to talk about ways of addressing race relations from the pulpit.
More than 35 years after they first met, the Revs. Turner and McKinney sat down again in December, 1995, for a conversation with Seattle Times religion reporter Lee Moriwaki.
They talked about the mood of the times then and now, and about the impact of Martin Luther King Jr. — a classmate of McKinney's at Morehouse College. Below is an edited transcript of the discussion.
Remembering another era
Moriwaki: What was the racial climate in Seattle back in 1958? Was it good, bad, indifferent?
McKinney: From my perspective it was confused. Because Seattle was a long way from, say, the deep South. Some people thought it was heaven, but Seattle, I felt, at that time, and still do to some degree, was insulated and isolated. Since we were in the corner of the country, nobody felt that any good thing could come out of here; nobody knew of anything really happening here. And many people, African-American and white, were confused about race. There were problems here. There was a problem about housing. But some people thought that since Seattle appeared to be better and different from the place from whence they came, they thought it was heaven.
Turner: We brought a Japanese-American fellow on our staff soon after I was here in '58. I went many places finding a place for him to live. There was segregation for the Japanese too, as well as for the African-Americans. And it was a very confused situation. There was segregation; it was very evident. And going around with him trying to find a place for him to live, I discovered prejudices that I had not suspected. But they were there.
Moriwaki: Dr. Turner, what prompted you to invite Dr. McKinney to your church?
Turner: We'd become friends by then and I appreciated what he had to say, and I felt that our people needed to have exposure to someone who really interpreted the faith in the right way, intelligent way. And who was incidentally a black person. I remember when Sam came to our church it made a great deal of difference to the people. And helped to maybe eliminate some prejudices that people had.
McKinney: I think I spoke about moving from the margins to the center. How many people are marginalized. A process of raising boundaries and moving to the center. Although the center was a small place, it was large enough to accommodate.
Turner: Several people told me that their ideas were changed on the basis of what Dr. McKinney had to say. It was a very positive thing. The more that you get to know one another the more we find we are all people, and color or nationality is unimportant. The segregation that we'd had has denied us that.
Turner: I remember meeting one time with you and John Adams and I said, "Someday we'll meet and we won't be discussing racial relation." And John said, "Not in our time, Turner, not in our time." And here we are, 30 some years later. I'm still wondering if his comment does have very real relevance to the situation.
Reflecting on King's legacy
Moriwaki: What would you say is Dr. King's legacy?
Turner: Well I still think the word "love" in its deeper agape, all-inclusive meaning. Unconditional love was what he had to say, and said it so very beautifully and demonstrated it so wonderfully. Marching in parades when he was a victim of things being thrown at him, and never altering his non-violence. I think Gandhi affected him, and nonviolence is certainly one of the things that would be his legacy. He was just a very marvelous illustration of what the New Testament faith is all about. He demonstrated it in the way he lived and reacted and preached and everything he did. It was just New Testament.
McKinney: (I would agree with) much of what Dale has already said plus maybe take it a step further. King was willing to challenge the evil of hatred and racism by putting his own life on the line. He did not run from bigotry but he was willing to face it head-on. He was willing to fight it, but not fight back.
This was perhaps underscored by his understanding of the teachings of Gandhi. He recognized the power of hatred and evil but he also knew the power of good...
At the time of King's death, there was a reaction growing in the black communities, especially the northern, urban communities. And especially in places like Chicago where King did not have a clear victory, because he ran into a type of racism unlike what he encountered in the South. He was not receiving the kind of victories, and there were people who felt that this non-violent approach did not work. They had tried it.
So you had the urban rebellion and reaction and resistance in places like Los Angeles, Detroit and Newark, which really flew in the face of what he stood for.
I was in his home in Atlanta the first Sunday of October, 1965. This was after the march from Selma to Montgomery. And he said at that time he knew that he was on a collision course with destiny and that he would die violently.
We were discussing it very candidly because I raised questions about taking the same people that walked over the delta, in Mississippi, and that had worked with him in the south, to a northern, urban community.
I grew up in quote "the north." And there were some differences at that time. I did not have a commitment to non-violence, because I could physically fight back if somebody called me the N-word.
Well my first name is Samuel, I had to deal with being called Sambo. And there was some distinction among students even when I first entered Morehouse between those from the north and the south.
King's message today
Moriwaki: If Dr. King were to return today do you think he would be saying the same things or do you think his message would be different?
Turner: I think that he would be saying the same thing, really. I don't think he would alter it. I think he would say it with more force. He was just a phenomenal person.
It's hard to assess how he would be received today. But I can't see him altering his non-violent approach. He would deepen his commitment to what he always believed.
McKinney: I think it would be basically the same except maybe stated in language of the '90's. But I also think we need to recognize that the day of a single leader or a Moses is past.
And even in Dr. King's time, a lot of his victories were situational. When there was a crisis, then he came in. But in every community into which he went, he was invited and there were local leaders on the scene who accepted his national presence in a way that focused attention on their situation in that locale, and helped give it national prominence and exposure.
If King came back
Moriwaki: If Dr. King were to come back today, what would his first reaction be to what he sees?
McKinney: It might be like Rip Van Winkle. You talk about Rip Van Winkle, who went to sleep, the British were in charge, he woke up and was a new American. There would be some adjusting to it.
I think we have to see Martin Luther King Jr. in the same light that we saw Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois one hundred years ago. Not to dismiss them as irrelevant, and not making sense, but they are milestones along the way. Points of progress that represent our struggle and where we came from and where we need to go. And it is a continuous struggle.
There are people who are struggling to keep the legacy alive so we will not be sidetracked by hatred or venom. (There is) the whole jail system, for instance. In this state of Washington, with less than four percent African-Americans in the population, we constitute 29 percent of all the people who are incarcerated. Young black men are being put in jail and there's no escape. And the attitude in the country is to get rid of them.
John Adams was right. Not in our lifetime. The stumbling stone this country has to overcome, and it will be there for America to stumble over, is the matter of race. And what I'm hearing today is that many whites don't want reconciliation.
They do not want to be integrated, if they are no longer (feeling they're) in charge of the situation. If the neighborhood tilts beyond 40 percent of the schools or even 20 percent, they're ready to run.
Moriwaki: What do you think Martin Luther King's reaction would be to the Million Man March? How would he have fit into it or observed it or reacted to it?
McKinney: Oh, I think he would have been a major player in it and I think that because of the absence of King, a type of leadership is now out there that has not been crowned by the public. Farakkhan is not our new leader.
He is a person, he is a voice, he represents a point of view that cannot be ignored by either the African-American or the white community. And I think we have to recognize that for what it is. And I'm not quite sure myself how King would fit in.
Turner: Your insights, Sam, are so different from mine.
You have been part of the group that has been the victim of the prejudice and the white community that has visited it upon the black person. And you see things in many ways with more depth and more breadth than I do. And I know this.
And it makes me want to study more to know how to overcome the prejudices that still exist.
I was reared in a society that told me that a person of color could not eat where I did and go to the movie and sit in the same section or even play on the same team. This is what I heard.
And then I went to church and heard that all people are equal. But the discrepancy is so, so pronounced in this society that I found it hard to disengage myself from the belief that somehow people were not all alike.
Qualities of leadership
Moriwaki: What qualities are needed from today's leaders to elevate them to the importance of a Dr. King?
McKinney: Leaders, I think, have to be visionaries. Father Divine created many words, but one word, I don't think it's made it into the dictionary, he liked to use the word "you have to 'tangibilitate' situations."
What he meant was to make it real, make it tangible that you could feel it, taste it, touch it. We don't have any visionaries. Maybe that's what the nation lacks. We do not have as a nation right now in a leadership role a vision which inspires people.
Turner: I think leaders need persistence first of all, no matter what the obstacles. To persist in doing what you think is right. Like Martin Luther King did. He persisted, he embodied it and carried it with him everywhere he went. I think often those who do the most good aren't necessarily those who try the hardest, but those who, like a full-laden apple tree, are so rich in their own spiritual fruitage, that no one can brush against a branch without bringing down something good to eat. And to embody, to carry with you, what you say you believe in. Persist in it always. Having the courage of persistence, I think, is the essence of leadership.