PUSH hosts funeral services for the late Cirilo McSween
by Lesley R. Chinn
After marching during the tumultuous 1960s with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., business leader Cirilo McSween saw the fruits of his labor come to reality after presidential election of U.S. Senator Barack Obama.
“He followed Barack Obama very closely. He was constantly watching CNN and reading all sorts of papers to keep up with what was going on during the campaign season. He followed the dream and the dream is almost fulfilled,” Veronica McSween, Cirilo’s daughter, said in a telephone interview last Friday with the Citizen.
McSween, who died at age 82 of cancer in Little Rock, Arkansas last Wednesday, was previously the subject of an exhibit, “McSween Meets King: A Civil Rights Story,” at the DuSable Museum. Veronica said King’s friendship and example taught him how to be fair, respectful, and treat everyone equal.
On Monday, funeral services for McSween were held at PUSH. The services attracted more than 400 people, including former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young; Panama President Martin Torrijos; Revs. Willie Barrow and Janette Wilson; Father Michael Pfleger; Don Thompson, president McDonald’s USA; John Rogers of Ariel Capital; and Blanton Canady, a Black McDonald’s Association member, according to PUSH officials. This tribute of life ceremony followed a visitation service on Sunday, also held at PUSH, where many also remembered McSween for his humanitarian life works.
During the funeral, family and friends shared unforgettable memories about McSween’s life beginning as a world track runner to a successful insurance agent, civil rights and business leader, and fundraiser for the Southern Leadership Christian Conference, Rainbow/PUSH; and the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaign of Rev. Jackson; and 1983 Mayoral campaign of Harold Washington.
Besides witnessing Obama’s election, Rev. Jackson said McSween also witnessed other historic moments such as Harold Washington becoming mayor in 1983; Andrew Young become U.S. Ambassador of the United Nations in 1977; and Nelson Mandela set free from a South African jail in 1990. “He fought the good fight and finished his course.”
McSween marched with King in the tumultuous 1960s and established a lifelong friendship with him until the late civil rights leader’s death in 1968. Besides serving as one of King’s pallbearers, McSween served as his national treasurer and executive board member for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He met King through Rev. Jackson after admiring the late civil rights leader from afar. This lifelong connection with Rev. Jackson and King led to McSween’s work as treasurer of Operation Breadbasket (now Rainbow/PUSH); treasurer of Mayor Harold Washington’s 1983 mayoral campaign; and campaign financial chairman for the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns of Rev. Jackson.
Born into poverty on July 8, 1926 in Panama, McSween was a champion runner in the Central American and Caribbean Olympics. There, McSween gained recognition as an individual sprinter and for being the anchor in the country’s relay team. He placed third in the Central American Olympics. It was through his athletic fame that McSween gained entry into the United States. He earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Illinois where he shattered track and field records. While he stood out in athletics, McSween realized that academics would help lay the foundation for the rest of his life.
After studying business at the University of Illinois, McSween became a life insurance salesman and sold more than $1 million in policies for New York Life at a time when there were no black insurance agents. His achievements were often highlighted in Ebony Magazine and his example became a model for future sales success. In 2004, through the persistence of Rev. Jackson, the company paid tribute to McSween by creating the Cirilo A. McSween New York Life Rainbow/PUSH Excel Scholarship Award. McSween later became a pioneer McDonald’s owner when he opened a location downtown on State Street and the other at O’Hare Airport. He was also one of the founders of Independence Bank of Chicago where he later became a board member and vice chairman.
Although he was a lifelong Chicago resident, McSween never forgot his roots in Panama. He led a push in the 1970s to turn over U.S. Control of the Panama Canal and testified before the U.S. Senate. He was also a friend of Gen. Omar Torrijos, who ruled Panama from 1968 until his death from a plane crash in 1981. Gen. Torrijos entrusted McSween with his son, Martin, after his death. From there, McSween helped pay for Martin’s college education and looked after the well-being of his family. When Torrijos’ son Martin, followed his late father into politics, McSween dispatched his son, Cirilo Jr., to Panama to work in the field while he monitored programs from America. McSween made several trips back to Panama, where he attended a victory celebration in Martin Torrijos’ honor. “From Cirilo, I came to understand what Dr. Martin Luther King had done for the entire human race and the meaning of fairness,” Torrijos said. Young, who described McSween as a “saint,” said his spirit combined with King’s values and Rev. Jackson’s prophetic vision must go into Obama’s administration and be carried out into the world. “Cirilo lived and struggled, but he saw the beginning of a new order and it’s up to us to see that order is fulfilled in his name.”
On Thursday, McSween will be laid to rest in Panama. His survivors include his wife, Arlene; daughters: Veronica McSween; and Esperanza Powell; son: Cirilo Jr; grandsons: Victor Powell and Derek Jennings Jr.; and sister: Anna Phillips. His first wife, Gwendolyn, preceded him in death.