By the time he was elected to the S.C. House of Representatives in 1974, the Rev. McKinley Washington Jr. already had done more than most people do in a lifetime.
And when he ended his political career — after 16 years in the House, 10 years in the Senate and eight years at the Employment Security Commission — he was only beginning.
Now, at 75, he is retiring in May from the pulpit of the church he joined when he was a divinity student in the early 1960s and is looking forward to a little more peace and quiet.
Today, he will preside over his last Easter Sunrise Service on Edisto Beach, deliver the last Easter sermon as Edisto Presbyterian Church’s pastor and contemplate Jesus’ death and resurrection from a changing perspective.
Washington is a man who has transformed his own life and others’ in remarkable ways.
Washington’s parents and seven siblings were sharecroppers in Sumter County, growing cotton, tobacco and corn. His father didn’t finish elementary school; his mother was a schoolteacher. They insisted that the children get an education.
Washington attended Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, where he studied economics and religion, earned a bachelor’s degree, then a Master of Divinity degree. (For years he has served as trustees of the Presbyterian school.)
He was still a student when he came to the Edisto church. Gwen Bennett-Jamison, a lifelong member of the church and chairwoman of the retirement celebration, said she was 4 or 5 years old when Washington first arrived 50 years ago.
“He baptized me, he married me,” Bennett-Jamison said. “I think he fell in love with the community. He saw the needs of the people in this community and he stayed and tried to fulfill some of those needs,” she said. “And he did, he did just that.”
As the pastor of a modest church, he was well-positioned to understand the injustices of segregation and the endemic poverty it perpetuated. He was no stranger to injustice. While in Charlotte, the sit-in movement took the South by storm, and Washington was among the first to occupy a seat at the city’s segregated lunch counters.
“I was put in jail in the morning, then the NAACP would get us out and I was back at the lunch counter that afternoon,” he said.
He attended the 1963 March on Washington. He helped start the Sea Island Comprehensive Health Care Corp., a project pushed by Esau Jenkins and Rural Missions founder Willis Goodwin.
“Esau had this dream about this health center,” explained longtime friend and political partner Bill Saunders. “So many people from the islands would die at the bridge.” In those days, rotating bridges spanned the waterways, and they would often get stuck after swiveling to let boats pass. It might take hours (and a lot of hand-cranking) before the problem was remedied, Saunders said. If someone had a serious accident and had to be rushed to a hospital for emergency care, “you die right at the bridge.”
The health clinic initiative, therefore, was a critical solution not only for the critically injured or ill, but for all the people of the Sea Islands who had no easy access to the urban center.
Washington started the NAACP’s Edisto branch in 1964 (the year he was ordained) and helped organize voter drives. Before the NAACP established its presence on Edisto, the black community was fearful, timid, careful, Washington said. The Ku Klux Klan would burn a cross every weekend.
“The NAACP got people all charged up,” he said. Intimidation gave way to courage. “They’d go and throw rocks at them (Klansmen).”
He endured lots of threatening phone calls, he said, but nothing scared him more than the morning he woke to find the egg-smeared car in the carport painted with KKK slogans and racial epithets. They might have done worse, Washington said.
In the early 1970s, his church members and others urged him to run for Sidi Limehouse’s seat in the state Legislature. He lost, but soon after won a special election. Reapportionment in 1976 changed the election geography to single-member districts, and that worked in his favor.
Quickly he got to work on social issues like early childhood education, petitioning Sargent Shriver, brother-in-law of the late President John Kennedy and head of the Office of Economic Opportunity under President Lyndon Johnson, to allocate Head Start funds despite the decision by local and state politicians to reject federal funds for education.
A few weeks after his trip to Washington, D.C., seven Head Start grants had been approved, Washington said.
During his legislative career, he served as chairman of the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus and as chairman of the Committee on Operations and Management of the House of Representatives. He developed a reputation for collaboration and compromise.
“In the state Legislature he was always a congenial guy,” said Steve Skardon, a former political adviser and now executive director of the Palmetto Project, of which Washington is a founding director. “Everybody loved to work with him. He was willing to compromise and take half a loaf, but the next week he’d be right back there trying to get the other half.”
“Because of McKinley, we’ve always had a special bond with people outside the mainstream of common life,” said Skardon, who has known Washington for 20 years. “He never lost sight of the ultimate goal: Fairness and justice. The God of the Bible is the God of life and of justice. McKinley’s life and ministry is a witness to that.”
U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, also a Sumter native, got to know Washington when the two men arrived in the Charleston area at about the same time in the early 1960s.
“We developed a relationship basically through the community development work I was doing with various federal department programs,” Clyburn said. “I really got to know him through his work with Rural Missions,” the faith-based charity serving communities in southern Charleston County.
In those early years of full-slate and at-large voting, there was tension between rural and urban areas, and frustration among underrepresented blacks, Clyburn said. His friend was a key leader in keeping communities on the same page politically, he said.
By the late 1960s, when Clyburn ran the S.C. Commission for Farm Workers, the two men worked together on affordable housing initiatives and other projects. And over the years, the friends have remained close.
Clyburn will deliver the keynote address at Friday’s Sea Island Health Care anniversary benefit program, during which Washington will be honored for his service to the organization and area communities.
“My wife and I always tried hard to get to his Labor Day event,” an annual backyard party, Clyburn said. “Sometimes I pass up my own family reunion.”
Carlette Mitchell Geddis, 45, grew up in Washington’s church. She has known only one pastor her whole life. Washington’s wife, Beulah, was her elementary school teacher.
Geddis commutes from Charleston to Edisto Island for Sunday worship, choir rehearsal and Girl Scout meetings. She is an elder at the church and superintendent of the church school.
Washington baptized her and her daughter, Jacaila, now 11.
“I think that he is a very community-oriented type of pastor,” Geddis said. “He strongly believes in the people of Edisto and all of the Sea Islands, and he has brought to us many opportunities that we weren’t afforded.” And as a family confidant, “he’s been there for us in good and bad times,” she said.
His retirement, after so many years at the church, is a difficult trial for the congregation, she said.
“We’re sad, but then we’re happy for him, too, because he’s truly nurtured our congregation,” Geddis said.
Now the congregation of more than 200 will launch a search for a new pastor, with help from the Charleston-Atlantic Presbytery, the regional church governing body.
In 1993, the McKinley Washington Jr. Bridge connecting the mainland near Adams Run to Edisto Island opened, a testament to Washington’s public service and a symbol of his long-standing efforts to bridge the divides that separate rich and poor, black and white.
Today, after five decades of pastoring and civic leadership, after many political victories and not a few defeats, Washington looks out upon the Lowcountry and worries.
“We’ve come a long way, but things have somewhat regressed,” he said. Complacency, not activism, is the order of the day, especially in the black community. Some of the hard-won gains have been eroded.
He is retiring. But he isn’t going anywhere. That basso voice of his will continue to rumble across Edisto and the Sea Islands, rolling toward the seats of government, bending toward justice.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.