Meet history maker and cultural leader Cecil Washington: from Marvin Gaye, a successful music career, to civil rights

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TOPEKA (KSNT) – Cecil Washington Jr. is a Topeka pastor and chaplin in the Kansas state senate, but before he preached to Sunflower State lawmakers, he was a cultural and civil rights leader.

“If you’re going to be a member of this church you really should not frequent night clubs,” Washington recalled his pastor telling him. “I said woah, wait a minute, wait a minute.”

Washington was a performer in Detroit, nearly signing a contract with Motown, he took his chances on an entrepreneur who began his own record label. He was in a unique situation, as the leader of group with white background singers. Before he took his first leap of faith moving from D.C. to Detroit, he helped change the course of civil rights in the country.

In his early 20s, he was one of six arrested for sitting on the carousel at Glen Echo park in Maryland. The closest desegregated amusement park was Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, a two hour ride from his home.

The park followed a strict segregation policy. On a summer night in 1960, as people picketed in protest, several protestors rushed the carousel.

One of six protestors was Washington, but he was the only one who wasn’t a student at Howard University. He was employed at a Formica factory, and the students were backed by their school. But he said he wasn’t scared, because he knew they were right.

It was just the beginning of how he touched so many lives.

He was born and raised in D.C., and grew up in the basement of a building home to an entirely white population that his grandfather worked at. His parents suffered from alcoholism and his grandparents took over as caretakers for him and his little brother.

It was in that basement that he started singing, wanting music to be his way out of poverty. Washington remembers those days, singing Johnnie Ray’s the Little White Cloud That Cried.

At school, he’d have friendly competition with another classmate, Marvin Gaye. The two would stand on opposite ends of the hallways to see who could draw the bigger crowd of girls around them as they belted it out.

He found great success performing in nightclubs and recording hits, but felt that something inside of him was telling him that show business was not his calling.

“I was asking the band, do you feel what I’m feeling?,” Washington said. The feeling was not inside of him, but something more divine.

“I said what are we really doing for these people? They spend money that they have no business spending on stuff they have no business spending it on. they meet somebody they have no business meeting and they leave here with someone they have no business leaving here with so they can go somewhere they have no business going. They’re worse off the next day than they were than they came to us.”

At the time, show business was his whole career and the life he was accustomed to, having started singing at the age of 12.

“So I’m trying to get Jesus to be my manager I’m trying to get him to be my road manager, I’m trying to get him to be my booking agent, I’m just trying to get him to be my MC to introduce me to the crowd,” Washington said.

He quit his band, leaving the flashy lifestyle and taking on a whole new challenge, teaching others about faith. Not only was he the chaplin for the house of representatives, he is currently the senate chaplin and pastor at the New Beginning Baptist Church in Topeka. Additionally, he preaches for the Officer’s Christian Fellowship and has traveled to Germany to serve the troops.

KSNT asked him what he would leave with viewers as he sets off for sabbatical. He said Proverbs 3:5-8.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

Do not be wise in your own eyes;
    fear the Lord and shun evil.
This will bring health to your body
    and nourishment to your bones.

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