Chattanooga lost a living legend this week when the Rev. Paul McDaniel died Sunday morning at the age of 91.
Well respected for his quiet ability to calm strife, his groundbreaking leadership and consistent integrity, McDaniel walked with grace the delicate tightrope between spirituality and politics.
He had plenty of practice. He retired in 2014 as the 48-year pastor of Second Missionary Baptist Church, and during 20 of those years he also served as a Hamilton County commissioner where he was elected chairman five times.
In all of his nearly half-century in the ministry, politics and the struggle for civil rights, McDaniel was known for his soft-spoken, voice-of-reason manner that enabled him to work with everybody. But never, ever, did anyone who knew him think that mild manner concealed the fact that he was a constant and determined fighter for equality and equity.
In 1969, three years into serving as a pastor in the growing Chattanooga church, he and other Black leaders here founded the Unity Group, which later helped get John P. Franklin elected as the first Black city commissioner.
Then McDaniel decided to seek office himself to become the first Black county commissioner on the Hamilton County Commission, despite a state law that forbade members of the clergy from holding public office. He sued to change the law, and in 1977 won a U.S. Supreme Court case to win that right for himself and others. The following year in 1978, McDaniel was elected to the commission.
Along the way, in the early 1970s, he became the first Black minister to serve as president of the Clergy Association of Greater Chattanooga.
And during a time when Blacks and people with low incomes continued to find themselves red-lined by banks when they sought to buy homes, McDaniel in 2000, after retiring from the commission, helped start the Church Koinonia Federal Credit Union, made up of mostly Black churches. The financial institution operated until 2013 when it merged in good standing with the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union.
McDaniel didn't just talk the talk: He walked the walk.
In 2018, the Tennessee Human Rights Commission — another panel on which he served — honored him in the chambers of Hamilton County Commission with its Jocelyn D. Wurzburg Civil Rights Legacy Award.
The award recognizes someone "whose life work embodies the ideals and principles of inclusion, equity, equality access and diversity," according to the commission. Recipients must be consistently committed to eliminating discrimination, promote inclusiveness and equity, and offer "visionary and insightful leadership to confront and resolve human rights issues."
McDaniel, of course, spoke with humility after being presented the award:
"Thanks to all for recognizing me, whether I deserve such honor or not," he told well-wishers in the crowded room. "I appreciated being associated with those who have contributed beyond the call of duty to serve for the well-being and welfare of the citizens of Tennessee."
Commissioner Warren Mackey, with several others there that day, paid tribute: "Here is an extraordinary man. He lives by the principles that he teaches and he preaches, and one of those is service. [He is] a man who has been humble, a man who is without scandal, a man who has left a huge imprint on this community and been a model for us."
Zach Wamp, who represented Chattanooga as a member of the U.S. Congress from 1995 until 2011, on Sunday in the Chattanoogan wrote a tribute, as well:
"I knew Commissioner Paul McDaniel as an even-handed, quiet statesman of sorts who tried to hear everyone out, give each person the dignity of their individual beliefs and work to build consensus whenever possible.
"I heard him preach , witnessed him minister, watched him legislate and observed him negotiate for the good of Hamilton County. His public service was appreciated and honored. His mission here on earth as a minister of the Gospel will eternally bear fruit. His kindness and thoughtfulness will never be forgotten and he will be missed as a friend to so many."
And we pay tribute: Thank you, Rev. Paul McDaniel for your lifetime of service to us all.