With the nation observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it’s worth recalling the time when the civil rights icon paid his lone visit to Seattle, in 1961. The Rev. Dr. Samuel B. McKinney, the Seattle civil rights activist, arranged for King to come to the Emerald City.
The Brotherhood of Mount Zion Baptist Church had invited the civil rights leader to give a series of speeches in Seattle. King, 32, was controversial. He’d received threatening phone calls. His home in Montgomery had been bombed. He’d survived a stabbing attempt during a book signing in Harlem. But McKinney believed the country’s leading voice for civil rights would send the right message to Seattle at the right time. “A lot of people had never seen him and wanted to hear him. We wanted him to come in and address us here. And he agreed.”
The forthcoming King visit to Seattle sparked controversy. Conservative blacks worried his visit would trigger racial disputes. Some of McKinney’s parishioners found anti-King material on their desks at Boeing. One parent of a student at Garfield High School, where King was scheduled to speak, raised concerns about the leader’s rumored ties to the Communist Party.
McKinney wrote King, alerting him of circumstances surrounding his scheduled tour. “An extreme conservative rightwing element, whose presence is a known factor on the west coast, have been quite vocal about your coming. The total community, which far exceeds the Negro population of 27,000, is quite aroused over some incidents that have occurred relative to your visit here. We have worked exceedingly hard to gain citywide support for your first visit to the Pacific Northwest, and that support is guaranteed now more than ever.”
While King’s entire visit was controversial, one stop proved especially contentious. In 1961, Seattle was inundated with massive construction projects for the Century 21 Exposition. The 1962 World’s Fair limited the number of available venues that could accommodate large crowds. McKinney settled on Seattle First Presbyterian Church at 8th and Madison, a great barnlike building that could hold some 3,000 people. He counted on a gentleman’s agreement and began publicizing the speech. “We got closer to it and started announcing it,” McKinney says. “There was some kickback at the church.”
First Presbyterian canceled the speech, triggering an unforgettable encounter between McKinney and the church lay leader who was also a lawyer. The imposing attorney, with his 6-2 frame and white flowing mane, had a “voice that could strike fear in judge and jury.”
McKinney can still hear his booming voice: “You did not follow proper procedures. But I know you’ve spent money. Give us a bill and we’ll pay for it.”
“We didn’t come down here asking for any money,” McKinney told him. “We don’t want your money.”
“What did you say?”
“You heard me. Nobody told us that there were any hoops to jump through, papers to sign and documents. You never told us that. But that’s okay, Dr. King will be in town, he will speak. And I think I ought to let you know—this is not a threat—but we are going to tell the world about what happened.”
“Well, tell the truth,” the attorney responded.
“Nothing but the truth, so help me God!”
“Right is right,” McKinney says. “We had an agreement and we were upholding our end of the bargain. Now you want to back down because some folks are bigoted and racist and don’t want to have Dr. King speak here.”
“You’ll look back and thank them,” King said when he heard the news. “Some people can kick you upstairs when they’re trying to put you downstairs.’”
The cancellation generated headlines.
King’s November visit would mark his only visit to Seattle and the last time he would travel alone. He reported bomb threats on the airplanes he flew and suspicious-looking men who seemed to be tailing him in Chicago and Birmingham.
When he arrived that November, the prominent figure’s message of nonviolence, his plea to President Kennedy to outlaw segregation by executive order, his admonition that young people were imperative to the movement, were met with roaring applause all over Seattle. To some 2,000 University of Washington students packed into Meany Hall, King said, “The student movements have done more to save the soul of the nation than anything I can think of. … We’ve broken loose from the Egypt of slavery and stand on the border of the promised land of integration.”
“His was a voice that needed to be heard,” McKinney says. “We were going through some difficult times. You had the feeling that you knew you were doing the right thing and somebody had to stand up for it.”
King gave two assemblies at Garfield High School and revved up a packed house at Eagles Auditorium with such force one onlooker said “the hall was shaking—literally.”
King and McKinney later pulled up chairs at Mitchell’s Bar-be-cue where they talked for hours. “Dr. King loved barbecue. He didn’t want to go to anybody’s home, but if I could take him to that place where I showed him good barbecue he’d love it. We were there until four o’clock in the morning. People were walking in off the street and I think he ordered everything on the menu.”
McKinney was the first subject honored with a Legacy Washington profile in its “Who are we?” online series and exhibit, which take a look at standouts in Washington’s political and cultural history.