Editorial: Remembering McKinley Washington Jr.

McKinley Washington Jr., who died Sunday at age 85, served many decades as both a Presbyterian minister and a South Carolina lawmaker and should be remembered as a bridge builder, particularly between the rural, African American communities in southern Charleston County and a state establishment slowly adjusting to new racial realities before, during and after the civil rights era.

Born and raised in rural Sumter County, Mr. Washington was among the first in his family to go to college. He became active in the civil rights movement during his years at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, where he earned his bachelor’s degree and a master’s in divinity. He protested at a segregated lunch counter until the diner removed all its seats. “We were kicked, spit on, called everything but child of God,” he recalled in a 2015 oral history interview. “We were conditioned to not fight back because that’s not the idea of the movement.”

He soon served as a pastor of a few churches, including the black Presbyterian church on Edisto Island. He became a community leader who advocated for better working conditions of those toiling on the island’s farms; for a fair share of local road paving; for equitable, integrated public education and expanded preschool; and for equal access to the state’s beaches and parks. It was this record of service that naturally segued into a political career. He served in the S.C. House of Representatives from 1975 to 1990, and in the state Senate from 1990 to 2000.

Those who remember Rev. Washington’s deep voice and gentle, collegial demeanor might not appreciate the strife and tension he faced along the way, including the time he awoke one Sunday morning to find his car defaced with eggs and racial graffiti and wondered whether his house might be set ablaze next.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn got to know Mr. Washington well through Democratic politics. “McKinley was a fierce advocate for the Sea Islands of South Carolina and he spent his life fighting for equity and a better quality of life for the communities he represented,” Rep. Clyburn said in a statement. “He was a man of great faith, but he followed the admonition that ‘faith without works is dead.’ As a result, he left his community and his state a better place.”

Aside from metaphorical bridge building, Mr. Washington also helped build an actual one. When serving as pastor of multiple churches, he often preached at a Hollywood church on Sunday mornings, only to find himself arriving late for his next service on Edisto Island because the old swing bridge along S.C Highway 174 had broken down. He eventually learned how to operate the crank to open and close the span. “Man, we’re going to get tired of doing this stuff,” he recalled in the 2015 interview, and he worked successfully with U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings to secure $8 million to build a modern replacement.

“There were a lot of people on the island who didn’t want the (new) bridge,” he said. “Their thing was if you put in the new bridge, folks will come to Edisto Island, and Edisto Island won’t be the same. That’s probably true.” But the bridge stands today as a symbol of the sort of beneficial public progress for which Rev. Washington should be remembered.

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