During his remarkable career, Richard McKinney has left his imprint on generations of educators and ministers. At 90, the Morgan State University professor is still teaching young people to think critically.


November 24, 1996|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

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!"

Extraordinary journey

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.

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