Activist and former lawmaker McKinley Washington Jr. dies at 85

McKinley Washington Jr., a long-time Presbyterian minister and pioneering African-American statesman in South Carolina, died Sunday, according to news reports and to various political leaders commemorating his service on social media. He was 85.

Washington was among a new generation of Black legislators in the state who gained access to the levers of power soon after desegregation. He served in elected office for 25 years, from 1975 to 1990 in the House, representing District 116, and from 1990 to 2000 in the Senate, representing District 45.

After his legislative career, he became a member of the S.C. Employment Security Commission for eight years.

Washington first was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives during the era of the so-called “New South,” when a young generation of Democrats sought to shake the burdens of the past and push the region forward into a more equitable future.

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.

During his years in the Statehouse, 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.

Civil rights leader urges people to combat harmful attitudes, reach out to others (copy)

The Rev. McKinley Washington Jr. speaking in 2011 at Morris Street Baptist Church during Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations. File

Washington was born in Maysville, a small community in Sumter county. His parents and seven siblings were sharecroppers, 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.

In 1961, he participated in lunch counter sit-ins in Charlotte. In 1963, he joined the March on Washington. On campus, he heard Malcolm X speak, and listened to Martin Luther King Jr. explain his philosophy of nonviolence. He was still a student when he came to Edisto Presbyterian Church.

He quickly rose to prominence on Edisto Island. In 1964, he formed a branch of the NAACP on and worked hard to enfranchise African Americans there. He also helped start the Sea Island Comprehensive Health Care Corp., a project pushed by Esau Jenkins and Rural Missions founder Willis Goodwin.

His efforts earned him some prominence in the Black community, but it also gained some unwanted attention from the Ku Klux Klan.

Before the NAACP became a presence on Edisto, the Black community was fearful, timid, careful, Washington told The Post and Courier in 2012. The Ku Klux Klan would burn a cross every weekend.

But intimidation gave way to courage, and local African Americans soon were confronting the Klan, throwing rocks and shouting catcalls.

He endured lots of threatening phone calls, 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.

But he did not turn away from the fight for justice. In 1969, he joined marchers supporting striking hospital workers in Charleston. During his years of service in the Statehouse, he remained focused on economic and social justice issues.

Washington remained active as pastor of Edisto Presbyterian Church for 50 years, until his retirement in 2012, his deep bass voice reverberating through the sanctuary.

In his last decade, he expressed concern that the hard-won gains achieved during the civil rights movement were eroding, and that too many preferred complacency to political activism.

His life of activism surely set an example that has inspired many others, from the late Clementa Pinckney, who won Washington’s Senate seat in 2000, to young legislators such as JA Moore and Marvin Pendarvis. In 1993, the bridge connecting the mainland near Adams Run to Edisto Island, named in McKinley’s honor, opened to traffic.

Fielding Home for Funerals in Charleston is in charge of funeral arrangements.

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