Abraham Lincoln smiles down on Lowcountry family

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comFebruary 9, 2013 

Lee McKinnon and his granddaughter, Dr. Gwennaye Cherie Coath, reflect on America’s dream at the Lincoln Memorial.

DAVID LAUDERDALE, STAFF PHOTO

Abraham Lincoln’s contribution to America has been dissected in a thousand books.

It’s the subject of a popular movie out now, and it will be the topic this week on Lincoln’s birthday.

But Lincoln’s value may best be measured in the lives of an elderly man from the Lowcountry and his granddaughter, the doctor.

I met them in Washington, where the old man smiled as he read the words of the Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial. The words remind streams of visitors from around the globe that America was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

When Lee McKinnon was born 87 years ago, those hallowed words were poppycock.

“When I came along, segregation was very high,” he said. “Everywhere you went.”

One place he went was to North Africa to serve his country in World War II.

And that’s why I met the quiet gentleman from Islandton — a wide spot in the road in Colleton County. He was on an Honor Flight last fall sponsored by the state’s electric cooperatives — a daylong trip to Washington to salute veterans, before it’s too late. I was there to tell their stories.

“Now I know what I was fighting for,” McKinnon said inside the Lincoln Memorial.

‘FOR A PURPOSE’

“Liberty” and “equality” were not real obvious on the farm outside Valdosta, Ga., where McKinnon was reared by his mother and grandfather. His one-room schoolhouse met only six months out of the year, for six grades.

From the time he was old enough to work — age 8 — McKinnon was his granddaddy’s right-hand man. “He was a man of many skills — a carpenter, farmer, and he invented things,” McKinnon said. “He was what you call a reaper, and to do that, he invented a hay bailer that worked like a combine, and a hay presser.”

His grandfather was dead set against young Lee joining the service in 1942. But the 17-year-old begged his mother until she signed the papers for him to join the Navy. He served aboard the attack transport USS Calvert and then the ammunition ship USS Kilauea. He was a cook, steward and trainer on a 40 mm “pom-pom” gun on two aircraft carriers.

The sailors were segregated on land, he said, “but at sea, we all worked together.” McKinnon said he joined after he lost his best friend, a fellow named L.M., to the war.

“I thought maybe I could make a difference,” McKinnon said. “I wanted to do something of value. I thought I could do that in the Navy — not to be a hero, but to make a difference. And every man did make a difference. It might not have seemed like much, but every man counted.” It all came back to him on the hills of white tombstones in Arlington National Cemetery.

“Somebody’s son is lying there,” he told himself. “What they did was for a purpose.“

‘CLOSE AS I CAN GET’

McKinnon’s purpose was marriage to Helen Williams when he moved to the Lowcountry after the war.

He worked in civil service at the Navy base in Charleston, among other jobs.

He said his children had much more opportunity than he did. His son, Lee Jr., was a career Navy pilot, and his son, Theodis, was a Navy submarine officer.

And his daughter, Gwendolyn, had a daughter who made it all the way from little Islandton, through Wade Hampton High School, to become a doctor at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

Dr. Gwennaye Cherie Coath drove up from her rural health clinic in North Carolina to be with her grandfather on his special day in Washington. At the statue of Lincoln, McKinnon said: “He wanted to put the United States in one basket. I’m thankful for that.”

As for equality, McKinnon said, “It took a lot of time, but it did get here. I wish it would have happened earlier so black people could get better knowledge than they got. By holding some people back, it hurt everybody. If we could have gotten better business education, we’d be better off today.”

The doctor said, “I’m grateful for the Emancipation Proclamation. I’m grateful to the World War II veterans who fought to keep this country free, so I could still have that opportunity.

“I’m also grateful to the other fighters — the fighters for civil rights, with the marches and sit-ins. All these efforts certainly weren’t wasted. Otherwise, I could still be a slave.

“Above all, I’m certainly grateful for God, who I think planted in our hearts the hope of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech right here.”

Then her grandfather said, “If we would learn to love instead of learn to love power, we would be a better country.”

Before he turned and headed down the steps, McKinnon said he had admired Lincoln since his days in the one-room schoolhouse.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t tell him to his face,” McKinnon said. “This is as close as I can get.”

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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