Prominent South Carolina civil rights leader, pastor, and former legislator McKinley Washington dead at 85

A prominent civil rights activist, pastor, and former Democratic politician in South Carolina passed away on Sunday.

McKinley Washington Jr., who served for 25 years in South Carolina’s state legislature and also led the Edisto Presbyterian Church for five decades, died Sunday at the age of 85, The Post and Courier reported.

From sharecropping to civil rights activism to lawmaking

Washington was born to a family of sharecroppers in the small rural community of Mayesville in Sumter County but, at the insistence of his parents, focused on his education and received a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Johnson C. Smith College in Charlotte, North Carolina, in economics and religion and divinity, respectively.

Throughout the 1960s, he became a prominent voice in the civil rights era and helped found a local chapter of the NAACP on Edisto Island, where he was a member of the Edisto Presbyterian Church while still a student.

Washington eventually entered politics in the 1970s and was elected in 1975 to the South Carolina state House, where he served until 1990, where he led the legislative black caucus and other influential committees, after which he was elected to the state Senate and served until he retired in 2000.

Church leader for decades

During that period, he also became the pastor at his church and led his congregation for 50 years until he stepped down from that leadership role in 2012, though he still remained active as a member.

Unfortunately, health problems that had plagued Washington in recent years had taken a toll and he was admitted to a hospital in mid-July for kidney issues. He is survived by his wife Beulah, son and daughter Michael and Katrina, and two grandchildren.

According to local news outlet WCBD, Washington’s funeral this weekend will feature visitation and a wake service at his Edisto church on Friday followed by a “homegoing” service Saturday afternoon in North Charleston, after which he will be interred in the Mayesville Cemetery.

Expressions of grief over the loss of Washington

Local outlet WCSC reported that numerous Democratic politicians in South Carolina, black and white, expressed their grief and mourning at the news of Washington’s passing.

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), who befriended Washington when they both entered politics together around the same time, said in a statement, “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.”

Clyburn added, “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. I will miss McKinley’s resonant voice that conveyed the trust and power that he earned during his life of service. May he rest in power.”

Former congressman Joe Cunningham, now running to be governor, tweeted, “Saddened to hear about the passing of Senator McKinley Washington. A legend of the Sea Islands and a pioneer in so many ways. I had the pleasure of spending time with he and Beulah just a few weeks ago. We are all better off because of his service and leadership to our state.”

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