He only flew to Seattle once. It was early November of 1961 -- two years before the young civil rights leader would give one of the most famous speeches in history. At just 32, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hadn't won his Nobel prize or written his letter from a Birmingham jail, but word of the influential pastor had spread. Out west, thousands of miles away from the powder keg of boycotts and unrest, things may have been calmer, but plenty of people were still hostile to King's message. They thought it was too radical, too revolutionary. So, they did what the forces of bitter intolerance have perfected today: they canceled him.
Reverend Samuel McKinney still remembers the moment First Presbyterian called the event off. Sure, he would tell his friends at the time, the racism in Seattle was nothing like the Deep South -- but "it wasn't the promised land" either. While a lot of African Americans were moving west to escape the tension, McKinney knew, "It's the same here as anywhere else. The difference is the matter of degree." People in the area needed a voice of reason and conviction -- someone who would send "the right message to Seattle at the right time." McKinney and King had been good friends in college -- both the sons of preachers who'd vowed to escape the "hot air" of ministry, both who ended up behind a pulpit anyway.
"A lot of people [in Seattle] had never seen him and wanted to hear him. We wanted him to come in and address us here. And he agreed." While McKinney thought the visit might be controversial, nothing prepared him for the firestorm that followed. He remembers watching, horrified, as angry protestors threw garbage cans through his windows and smeared excrement across the glass. He tried to explain to his daughter that kids on the bus didn't mean it when they said, "I hear they're going to kill your daddy." When another prominent black activist in the area was shot, he worried that reaching out to Dr. King had been a horrible mistake. After some sleepless nights, he resolved to move forward. "One of the ways some forces function is that they put fear into you. You back off, and they have won."
Years later, McKinney would write about that agonizing time, "There are certain calls in your life that you cannot reject or ignore. There's a price to pay, but you go on and pay it. You can ask the Lord to give you the strength to make it, and He did... That's when your faith kicks in."
He wrote to Dr. King, warning him that tempers in the city had flared. Still, McKinney assured him, "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." So was public interest. In fact, the trip piqued so much interest that McKinney struggled to find a place that could contain the crowds. That's when they settled on First Presbyterian, "a great barnlike building that could hold some 3,000 people."
Two weeks before Dr. King arrived, the church abruptly called the event off. They blamed the last-minute cancelation on construction work and other excuses McKinney didn't believe. And while he tried to appeal to the church's leaders to change their mind, First Presbyterian refused. In a fiery exchange with their attorney, McKinney said, "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."
He was right. News stories started to break about the controversy, and suddenly a string of other venues came forward, offering to host the young King. "His was a voice that needed to be heard," McKinney wrote later. "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."
The trip turned out to be King's only venture out west -- and the last time he would travel alone. Threats on his life were starting to rise to the level that other civil rights leaders in the movement considered truly dangerous. He made the trek anyway. From the moment he touched down, it was clear that his time in Washington would be remembered -- not for one side's early attempt at deplatforming -- but for the profound impact it would have on the nation. Some of the civil rights leader's greatest lines, ones that the world would later hear echo across the National Mall, were first uttered to crowds in Portland and Seattle. It was the trip, people now say, that started his "I Have a Dream" speech.
"However much America strays from it, the goal of America is freedom," he urged. "We are going to win our freedom," he insisted, "because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of Almighty God are embodied in our echoing demand. And so I can still sing, 'We shall overcome'... because the universe bends toward justice... With this hope, we will be able to hew out of a mounting despair the stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."
Sixty years later, the country he loved is back in tatters, facing an uncertain future. If Dr. King were here, maybe he would tell us what he told them: "We must learn to live together as brothers -- or perish as fools." If democracy is to live, he warned, "segregation must die." Today, that segregation takes many forms -- segregation on the basis of race, segregation on the basis of beliefs, segregation on the basis of religion. That's not the America in Dr. King's dream. His nation, the one he gave his life for, was about tearing down barriers -- not putting them up. Imagine his dismay that more than a half-century later, what we are tearing down is each other.
But, as Dr. King liked to say, "the time is always ripe to do what is right." Reverend McKinney would remember those words 37 years later when he got a letter from the new pastor at First Presbyterian Church. It was an apology for what had happened all those decades ago. McKinney was shocked. "I never expected this to happen," he told the new pastor on the phone. It was 1998 -- years after Dr. King's assassination -- and yet this young minister still wanted to set things right. "He felt if he could do something to heal that rift," McKinney remembered, "he would do it."
And maybe that's where Dr. King's legacy would point us today. Too often, he would say, the church is "an echo rather than a voice. A taillight instead of a headlight." The time to lead is now. If there's division, let us be the people that heal it. If there's a way to move the country forward, let's be the people that find it.
** Our nation is in trouble and we have a choice to make: Christ or chaos. The direction our nation takes will be determined in large part by whether or not the people of God listen to the direction God has given.
If you missed my Sunday morning message at Jefferson Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, "Listen! Are You Listening?" check out the video below. **