SEATTLE -- Fifty years ago, on April 4, 1968, the country lost a leader in Martin Luther King Jr., but the Rev. Dr. Samuel B. McKinney here lost a friend.
"His father and my father were good friends; they were both baptist pastors," McKinney said.
Before these two pastors were civil rights legends, McKinney and King were just young boys, forced to sit through their fathers’ pastor conventions.
"I was trying to escape the assembly of hot air and so was Dr. King. That's how we met."
Their paths would cross again years later at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where they were in the same freshmen class. The two would stay friends until King's death.
Correspondences between the men show their familiarity. There's a telegram to McKinney lamenting the loss of his mother, signed Martin and Coretta King. Another letter is addressed, "Dear Sam," and signed, "Very sincerely yours, Martin."
It was that friendship that would bring King to Seattle in 1961.
"He made only one trip to Seattle and we were responsible for that," McKinney said.
But McKinney’s Mount Zion Baptist Church was not big enough at the time to hold such a crowd. He turned to Seattle First Presbyterian Church to host the speaker. The church initially said yes but then rescinded the offer.
"I received this letter saying we did not follow proper procedure therefore we could not have use of that facility," McKinney shared. He suspected the church caved to pushback from people against King’s visit.
"I said I think you ought to know that Dr. King will speak somewhere here in Seattle."
That somewhere was Eagles Auditorium on Seventh and Union, which proudly displays a bust commemorating the event. There wasn't theater seating back then, just hundreds of people crammed in from all over the state.
"Dr. King pointed out it didn't matter where you live, you could not escape what was going on," McKinney said. "We needed to hear that message that he had. He was a living experience of what had taken place."
That living experience included violence.
"We had room for him at the Olympic Hotel and after he got there he took his shirt off and I saw the stab wound," McKinney said.
Three years prior, a woman had plunged a letter opener in King’s chest, dangerously close to his heart. Every trip he took, every appearance, was a risk to his life.
"His trip here was the last time that he traveled anywhere by himself because of the threats that were on him."
In 1965, McKinney joined King for the last part of his march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which would pressure Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act that year.
Sitting down for dinner one night, McKinney recalled a shocking conversation.
"I remember Dr. King making a statement that he knew he was going to be assassinated and we asked him, 'How can you be so sure?' And he said well, he had reached the point of no return."
King was killed on his hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, three years later. But his message lives on.
"He was seen as the right person at the right place at the right time to say and do the right thing, which he did, and they lined up behind him," McKinney said.