As his students grapple for the first time with the ambiguities of Christian ethics, Morgan State University professor Richard McKinney sits, hands folded, a study of thoughtful repose. How can the Bible be the inspired word of God when it contradicts itself? one student asks.
"You'll come across a lot of contradictions in the Bible," McKinney tells the class. "We need to read the Bible in terms of its culture and a span of several thousand years. ... I think the people who wrote it were inspired, but they wrote from the viewpoint of their experience, their perspective, their place in time. We have to see the Bible as the way in which a particular people interpreted their relationship to God."
This morning in Holmes Hall on the Morgan campus, students are learning how to examine their beliefs as critically as they do their appearance. They are weighing thoughts, re-evaluating them. The air is heavy with ideas bursting for expression.
Their philosophy professor lets the conversation stray, then redirects it. Speaking softly, choosing his words deliberately, he treats his listeners to a rare phenomenon: the orderly presentation of well-reasoned thought.
McKinney has designed this course so that these adults of the 21st century will understand the value of Christian ethics in their lives. He invites students to ponder how relevant Christian ethics are to a "just" war. Or to abortion. Or to capitalism. Or to relationships between men and women. Or to same-sex marriage.
The textbook for this class is 2 years old.
The students are mostly in their early 20s.
The professor is 90.
Almost a half a century after Richard McKinney founded the philosophy department at Morgan, he is still in the classroom, challenging his students and being challenged by them. He is a master teacher of master teachers.
His work reveals itself in his former students and in his colleagues. It is present in the wisdom of Robert Mack Bell, the new chief judge of Maryland's highest court, to whom McKinney taught analytical thought, and in the determination of UMBC president Freeman Hrabowski, who regularly seeks McKinney's counsel on the business of running a college.
Samuel DeWitt Proctor, who succeeded Adam Clayton Powell at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, studied under McKinney 50 years ago at Virginia Union University.
"He introduced us to the great books and the great teachers," says the 75-year-old minister. "Do I remember any of his courses? Remember them? I should say so! I took 'Life of Jesus,' 'Introduction to the History of Philosophy,' 'Religious Education,' Ethics,' and 'William James and the Psychology of Religion.' Dr. McKinney was always a thinker. He put things together in a coherent way."
Many former McKinney students have joined the ranks of Sigma Pi Phi, the national association for African-American male professionals. McKinney served as its president after he officially retired from Morgan in 1978. Since then, the educator has continued to teach part-time, serve on boards throughout the city, work on higher education task forces, lecture widely, write articles and books. His biography of Mordecai Johnson, Howard University's legendary president, will be published early next year.
What is most remarkable about Richard McKinney, however, is what happens on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in Holmes Hall. Most of the dozen students taking "Introduction to Christian Ethics" have no idea that their professor was a distinguished college president, that he was a close friend to civil rights trailblazer Vernon Johns, or that he taught the art of debating to Barbara Jordan's debate teacher. They have no idea that prominent black leaders -- including their own college president -- seek out and treasure this man's opinion.
But they do know they have stumbled upon something remarkable.
"I have never had a teacher ask us, 'Do you prefer lecture or discussion?'" says sophomore Tracie West. "When Dr. McKinney asked us that question at the beginning of the course, we said, 'Both!' And the very next class, that's what we did. Most professors are not concerned with what the students prefer, but he actually pays attention to us."
Just about everyone in this class assumes their teacher is near retirement age, but hesitates to say how near.
"That man's 90?" marvels 23-year-old Irish Brown. "You gotta be kidding!"
Richard Ishmael McKinney has traveled from a rural segregated world where the Bible was infallible to a high-tech age in which computers carry news about life on Mars into his basement study.
It has been an extraordinary journey. Born the last of eight children in Live Oak, Fla., McKinney began his education in a school that his father, a Baptist minister, helped to run.
By the time Richard came along, however, the Florida Institute had ceased to prosper and the family was struggling to pay the college-tuition bills for his older siblings. After seventh grade, the boy stayed home for two years while his parents saved money to send him to a church-affiliated school in Georgia. There was more time off during high school and in summers while Richard earned money driving mules, lifting 100-pound orange crates and cleaning out ditches that harbored poisonous snakes.
Through it all, he read and read and read. Particularly the inspirational works of Horatio Alger.
"Those were the most impressive stories I read as a child," he says. "Here were men who had some difficulties and were courageous and enterprising and overcame every single one of them. And I said, 'I'm going to be that way.' "
Horatio Alger's characters, of course, had one big advantage over Richard McKinney: They were white. McKinney grew up in a time of rigid segregation, in a place where most blacks were either servants or farmhands.
But the boy was protected from the worst excesses of racism by his parents. "My mother said, 'Richard, you can do anything.' I believed it. And acted on it," he says.
After graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1931, McKinney went to Pendle Hill, a Quaker-run graduate center, to Andover Newton Theological School near Boston and eventually to Yale for his doctorate. By the time he received his Ph.D. in the philosophy of higher education in 1942, he and his late first wife, Phyllis, had two children. They'd spent one year in Providence, ,, where McKinney preached at the Pond Street Baptist Church, and nine years in Richmond, where he taught and directed religious activities at Virginia Union University.
Along the way, many colleagues tried to save the young scholar from what they assumed would be the humiliating rejection of his efforts to earn a doctorate.
"Although I didn't know anybody with a Ph.D. in philosophy, I always expected to go to the top of academe," McKinney says. "When I mentioned it to one of my professors, he said, 'You don't need a doctorate.' Of course, I paid no attention to him. ... After I got mine, he eventually got his."
In 1944, at the age of 38, McKinney became president of Storer College in Harpers Ferry, W. Va., a black college now merged with Virginia Union. While he gained full accreditation for the college in several fields, he sent his own son and daughter away to school in Boston, because the local segregated schools were substandard.
"The superintendent of elementary education was a guest in our house one time and very casually mentioned -- although she didn't realize what she was saying -- that she wouldn't have accredited the school our children went to if it had been a white school," McKinney recalls.
In 1951, McKinney came to Baltimore to develop the philosophy department at Morgan. His newly adopted city was edging toward a new era in race relations. Maryland Gov. Theodore McKeldin had just established a commission on interracial problems and relations. The next year, a dozen black students enrolled at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, and blacks were allowed into Ford's Theater.
The pace of change accelerated after the Supreme Court's 1954 landmark ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. Morgan's campus was caught up in the spirit of the times: demonstrations, marches and sit-ins.
Eventually, some professors and administrators at Morgan became uncomfortable with the growing radicalism around them. Not McKinney. In the early 1960s, he had hired one of the campus' most notorious firebrands: Clifford DuRand, a white Marxist who became faculty adviser for a radical student group called Dissent.
No one at Morgan wanted to give DuRand tenure. Too much of a rabble-rouser, they said. But McKinney fought for the young professor, arguing that the campus needed voices like his.
"I was a hot-headed young radical, something of a troublemaker on campus," DuRand says. "Dr. McKinney supported and nourished that as part of the freedom of expression that should be part of a college campus."
By the time Robert Birt arrived at Morgan in the early '70s, the campus was awash in brightly colored dashikis and elaborate Afros. Birt started out as a history major, but was drawn to the philosophy department's emphasis on social and ethical issues.
"In those days, I was confronting Vietnam and civil rights and the black movement," says Birt, who is now a Morgan philosophy professor. "The philosophy department was the most socially conscious department on campus."
But its leader always remained a courtly figure with, in those days, a meerschaum pipe. Though he enjoyed bringing radicals like Angela Davis to speak on the Morgan campus, McKinney belonged to a generation of impeccably-dressed gentleman scholars.
He grew up in a household where meals were cooked on a wood-burning stove and the children played 'Authors,' a card game matching works of literature to writers. He can still recite lines of Tennyson he learned before World War I. And to those students who say "No problem," he will respond, "Very well."
"McKinney was one of those persons who developed a certain cultivated sensibility," Birt says. "If he came from a poor background, you couldn't guess it."
The McKinneys live in a trim white house in Morgan Park -- a community within walking distance of the university. Richard McKinney has lived there 35 years and has been married almost 30 of them to Lena McKinney, an elegant and gracious woman who works part-time as a Morgan counselor.
The living room holds photographs of Richard's children -- U.S. Marshal George McKinney and school administrator and poet Phyllis Bynum -- his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. On the coffee table are two tidy stacks of books, among them Sam Proctor's "Substance of Things Hoped For," a memoir that includes glowing recollections of his teacher, Richard McKinney. There's Lena McKinney's upright piano, and a handsome Chippendale-style side table, which McKinney built.
Most prominent, perhaps, is the framed copy of Rembrandt's homage to the great thinkers of the past: "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer."
Richard McKinney is often called upon to give the proper tone and meaning to life's milestones. Over the years, a number of colleagues and friends have requested his stirring recitation of Oswald McCall's "The Hand of God," which he also uses to inspire his students. The meditation, in part, describes how the content of the soul eventually writes the history of the face.
And there, more deep than acids etch the steel, will grow the inscribed narrative of your mental habits, the emotions of your heart, your sense of conscience, your response to duty, what you think of your God and your fellowman and of yourself. It will all be there. For men become like that which they love, and the name thereof is written on their brows.
McKinney has quiet vigor, penetrating eyes and a face whose lines suggest the challenges rather than strains of living. Though he is nearing the end of his life, he remains in good health, with a new knee he exercises on a stationary bike. This summer, he lost his last sibling, a 95-year-old sister.
"I don't feel as alone as I thought I would," says the professor, adding wryly: "But I have faced up to the possibility that I will not live to be 200 years of age."
Richard McKinney is modest, discreet and practical. He doesn't bask in others' fond recollections or gild the old days, which, after all, contain the humiliations and dangers of segregated America.
His thoughts and strength are clearly in the present. As a man who is facing forward, he has little patience for summing things up. His energy is better spent figuring out how to reach students raised in a far different world than he was.
When McKinney went to Morehouse in the 1920s, none of his fellow students had cars or radios, yet they considered themselves among the privileged. They were on their way up. College was the threshold of a better life.
Two years ago, when he was teaching a course at Coppin State College, the professor asked a student what he planned to be doing in 10 years. He was shocked when the young man replied that he didn't expect to be alive.
"How do you motivate youngsters who have that outlook?" McKinney says. "I told him, 'Life is more than what you have experienced so far. You ought to read about what African-Americans are doing today, about people like Colin Powell. The way you're going to have meaning in your life is to have a goal and ideals around which you organize yourself. Find something you'd like to do for yourself and for other people. Find someone you're interested in as a model.' "
McKinney's first hero was his father, Baptist minister George McKinney, a man who died believing the Bible was literally the word of God and never discovered that his youngest son thought differently. He did live long enough, however, to see Richard attend Andover Theological Seminary, a dream he had once cherished for himself.
Over the years, McKinney has preached at churches around the country. One of his mentors was Howard Thurman, the influential preacher who founded an interracial, interdenominational church in San Francisco and served as dean at the chapels of Howard University and Boston University.
After studying with Thurman at Morehouse, McKinney worked to develop what he so admired in his teacher: a balanced view of life, fresh yet profound insights, the belief that "a brain is a brain and the package doesn't count" and a captivating way of speaking.
In 1953, Thurman asked McKinney to succeed him at his Fellowship church in San Francisco, but McKinney refused. In the decision to build a department at Morgan, he had turned away from the life of the pulpit.
"As a person in my 20s, I could not direct the people in my church in the way I thought they ought to go," he says. "I used to think everyone who knew the truth would be inclined to do the truth. Then I realized I didn't convert someone old enough to be my father in one sermon -- and that people don't always change when they hear an idea.
"But I could help direct the life of an 18 or 19-year-old freshman. After three or four years, I could see the different level at which he's thinking and living. I enjoyed that."
McKinney chose to remain in the world of historically black colleges. Along the way, however, he influenced white students as well. In the 1940s, particularly after he became a college president, McKinney became "Exhibit No. 1" at colleges where lectures by black professors were rare.
Often met with racism -- much of it unwitting -- he soon realized that taking offense too early could cut off valuable communication that might lead people to change their views.
He mentions a time in the 1940s when he and two fellow Yale students -- white men from the South -- were driving to a symposium. As part of a very congenial conversation, one of the men made a joke about driving that referred to "the niggers in my town."
"The next two miles, everyone was very quiet," McKinney recalls. "Finally, the fellow apologized. I said, 'Man, you don't have to apologize for this, because the fact you said it indicates you thought of me as a fellow student and friend and not in a racial category.'
"Some racial barrier had been broken. I was not insulted because I knew the context out of which that statement came."
Has anyone ever accused the philosopher of being too #i reasonable?
"I suppose I've had that said about me once or twice," he says. "I need to think that there are some human situations where one does not think of race or color but rather of what is at the essence of the other person. Who that person is is made up primarily of his ideas, his ideals, the things that he cherishes."
In examining the work of thinkers like Aristotle, Darwin and Marx, McKinney likes to train his students to ask three questions: What does the author say? What does he mean by what he says? What do you think about it?
"Students are always inclined to talk about the third question -- What they think about it -- and I have to drive them back to 'What is he saying?' " the professor says. "A lot of their arguments break down because they don't know the foundation on the basis of which they're supposed to be arguing."
One crisp fall morning in Holmes Hall, his students are talking about the Sermon on the Mount. What does Jesus mean when he tells his followers to "agree with thine adversary"? At what point do you stop denying your beliefs for the sake of expediency -- or even safety? Just how important are your beliefs? asks a student named Michael Kornegay.
McKinney picks up the conversation. "Here, Mr. Kornegay raises the question of 'What do we mean by life?,'" he says.
"When Socrates was imprisoned on some trumped-up charges, his friends said, 'We have bribed the jailers, all you have to do is walk out.'
"And Socrates said, 'Who is Socrates? Is he my physical body? No. Socrates is my beliefs, my convictions, the things I have taught. You have respected me not because of my flesh and blood but because of my ideas. One of those ideas is loyalty to the state. I did urge you to be loyal to the state. The state says I should die. If I take the opportunity to countermand what the state has ordered, then I am going against my teachings. In order for Socrates to live, his body must die.' "
"Martin Luther King Jr. was a man who had a set of values, convictions which he was prepared to live by and die by. In the movement to make those convictions live, he risked his physical survival and lost his life. He believed, 'The sacrifice of my physical condition might have some positive effects on this country.' And it was true. I have yet to go to a town of any size that does not have a street named for Martin Luther King. People realize, 'Here's a man who lost his life saving who he really is.'
"My point in all of this," -- he looks around the table -- "is 'Who is Mr. Kornegay?' He's what he believes. He is his convictions."
He pauses again, then continues in a clear, quiet voice: "When you are gone, your family and friends will think about what you meant to them rather than what you looked like."
These words reverberate in silence, that slightly stunned moment that follows the final notes of a great concert. Then the students scribble away, searching to capture what their professor has just made them feel.
As he watches them, Richard McKinney's face reveals the creases of life-long affection. It's as if he's also seeing the hundreds and hundreds of other young people he has helped think clearly about a world slow to accept them. His powerful calling has left an indelible mark. And it is all there, written on his brow.
Pub Date: 11/24/96