Cynthia Ann McKinney Biography
Brought New Face to Washington, Learned from Her Father, Awakened to Racism, Became State Legislator
The first black woman from the state of Georgia ever to fill a Congressional seat, Cynthia McKinney has proven a maverick presence on Capitol Hill. A liberal Democrat, McKinney first represented Georgia's 11th district, which encompassed 22 counties and parts of suburban Atlanta, Augusta, and Savannah, before redistricting moved her to the 4th district. McKinney's trademark gold running shoes and braided hair became symbols of her challenge to the mostly white, mostly male U.S. Congress. A divorced working mother who grew up during the civil rights era, she appreciates the needs of the poor, of blacks, and of women. Though McKinney was defeated in her reelection bid of 2002, after controversy over her criticisms of President Bush's foreign policy. she won reelection in 2004 and returned to Congress determined to continue her fight.
Brought New Face to Washington
In an Atlanta Journal/Constitution profile, McKinney reflected that her ability to win a seat in Congress is nothing less than a mandate from common Americans for more sensitive representation in the national government. "Now we have people in Congress who are like the rest of America," she said. "It's wonderful to have ordinary people making decisions about the lives of ordinary Americans. It brings a level of sensitivity that has not been there." Asked about the role black female legislators hope to play in Congress, McKinney declared in the Washington Post : "We're shaking up the place. If one of the godfathers says you can't do this, my next question is: 'Why not? And, who are you to say we can't?'"
McKinney first joined Congress in 1992 as a member of "an energetic and aggressive coterie of black female lawmakers," to quote Washington Post correspondent Kevin Merida. Since then she has proven to be an independent thinker who challenges conservative colleagues on such issues as abortion rights, welfare reform, and accepting gifts and services from lobbyists. In Newsweek, Bill Turque noted that from her first entree into the "kingdom ruled by an aging white patriarchy of Brooks Brothers pinstripes," McKinney "stood in bold relief: a divorced, black, single mother with gold canvas tennis shoes, flowing, brightly patterned skirts and hair braided in elaborate cornrows."
The congresswoman from Georgia has never let anyone intimidate her, from the president to the parking attendants in the House garage: she feels a powerful call to be an example not only to her own constituents but also to other black women. "My father cries every time he sees me on C-SPAN because people like me don't get this far," she told The Hill. "Especially black politicians like me." She paused and then added: "Especially black politicians from the South like me."
Learned from Her Father
One of Cynthia McKinney's earliest memories is that of following her father to a sit-in at the segregated Sheraton Biltmore Hotel in Atlanta. Born in 1955, she was only four years old when the civil rights movement gained momentum, largely through the efforts of people like her father, Billy, a retired police officer and Georgia state legislator. Billy and his second wife Leola McKinney were determined to give their daughter opportunities that they had been denied as youngsters. Concerned about her education, they sent Cynthia to Catholic school, a decision that has had lasting ramifications in the congresswoman's life. At first the young McKinney was so taken with Catholic school that she announced her intention of becoming a nun. "The nuns wear the ring, and they say that they're married to God," she explained in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution. "I just thought that was what you wanted to be in life." Later she chose other career paths, but remained a member of the Catholic Church despite her parents being Baptists.
McKinney attended Catholic schools through high school graduation and then decided to leave her native Atlanta to study at the University of Southern California. She was not particularly happy there, but her parents encouraged her to stay, and she earned a bachelor's degree in 1978. The following year found her back on the civil rights path with her father. They traveled together to Alabama to protest the conviction of Tommy Lee Hines, a retarded black man accused of raping a white woman. For the first time since her earliest childhood, McKinney encountered the full force of racism at the protest.
Awakened to Racism
McKinney was threatened by Ku Klux Klansmen in full regalia. Eventually the National Guard had to be called to the event, and four people were wounded by gunfire. "That was probably my day of awakening," McKinney recalled in the Washington Post. "That day, I experienced hatred for the first time. I learned that there really are people who hate me without even knowing me. … Prior to that day, everything was theory. On that day, I saw fact. That was when I knew that politics was going to be something I would do."
Entering graduate school to study international relations, McKinney began to pursue a doctorate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University. She worked on a thesis about the satellite states of the former Soviet Union. In 1984 she became a diplomatic fellow at Spelman College in Atlanta, and she has also taught political science at Clark Atlanta University and Agnes Scott College. Her short-lived marriage to a Jamaican politician, Coy Grandison, ended in the mid-1980s. McKinney says little in the press about her former husband, with whom she had one son. "Suffice it to say, he was no prince in shining armor," she commented in the Washington Post. "My radar just went down."
McKinney was still living in Jamaica in 1986 when, unbeknownst to her, her father put her name on the ballot for the Georgia state legislature. By that time Billy McKinney had become a respected state politician himself and was a leader among black lawmakers in the Georgia State House of Representatives. His daughter thought her inclusion on the ballot was just a joke—until she earned 20 percent of the vote in that district without any effort. She returned to Atlanta with her young son, sought a divorce, and entered state politics in earnest in 1987.
Became State Legislator
McKinney easily won her first election to the Georgia State House of Representatives in 1988. She joined her father in the legislature–becoming the only father-daughter lawmaker team in the country–and immediately began to prove that she would set her own course. "[My father] thought he was going to have another vote, but once I got in there, we disagreed on everything and I ended up voting against him all the time," McKinney remembered in Cosmopolitan. "I was a chip off the old block, a maverick."
Never was that more apparent than the day Cynthia McKinney stood in the Georgia legislature to condemn George Bush's decision to send troops to fight in the Persian Gulf. Declaring that President Bush "should be ashamed of himself," McKinney earned hisses from her colleagues, and quite a number of them walked out of the chamber. She was stunned by that reaction. "Those guys treated me like dirt. They were so nasty and mean," she said in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution. "Everything I did after that was suspect." Opponents, reveling in her troubles, took to calling her "Hanoi Cynthia."
In the late 1980s Cynthia McKinney joined a group of state legislators who were pressing Georgia's Justice Department to ensure proportional representation for blacks in the U.S. Congress. McKinney and her colleagues were successful in winning the right to draw three new congressional districts in such a way that they would have large populations of blacks. The 11th was one of the new districts. Its boundaries stretched 250 miles—roughly the same area as the whole state of New Jersey—through rural, suburban, and urban areas of 22 counties and three major Georgia cities. Predominantly Democratic, and 60 percent black, the district elected McKinney to Congress in an easy victory in 1992.
Joined U.S. Congress
American voters elected 110 new members—or "freshmen"—to Congress in 1992. McKinney was among them and, very quickly, she established herself as a leader and innovator. She was named secretary of the Democratic freshman class, and she lobbied—unsuccessfully—for a place on the prestigious House Rules Committee. After new assignments had been made, McKinney found herself on the Agriculture Committee and the International Relations Committee. She also found that life in Washington would present its own set of problems. As Bill Turque put it, "Months after most freshmen were recognizable figures on Capitol Hill, McKinney still found herself treated like a wayward tourist."
In February 1993, a House elevator operator tried to order McKinney off a members-only car. In April, a Capitol garage attendant confronted her and two staff members and asked edgily: "Who you folks supposed to be with?" She had assumed that over time such institutional slights would cease. But in early August, after a Capitol Hill police officer grabbed her by the arm at a metal detector that members are allowed to bypass, McKinney complained to House Sergeant-at-Arms Werner Brandt. "There's not that many people here who look like me," she told him.
The "institutional slights" have declined since many members of Congress have come to recognize McKinney. The gold tennis shoes and cornrow braids have actually helped to establish her visibility and individuality on the House floor. According to the congresswoman in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, the gold shoes were not meant to become a trademark item. "My feet were hurting, and I was complaining to my mother about these floors [in Washington]," she recalled. "My mom looks in a magazine, sees these gold tennis shoes, orders them and told me that I could wear those shoes. I wore them on the House floor, and the men loved it. They would come by and see if I had on my tennis shoes."
The braids were a simple timesaving expedient that McKinney absolutely refused to change, even if they might cost her an election. "A lot of people judge me based on a stereotype," McKinney explained. "They look at me, they see a black woman, they say, She's got to be another Maxine Waters (a fiery liberal from Los Angeles). Well, heck, I don't mind being another Maxine Waters when it comes to the strength and force of advocacy. But to judge me in my entirety by what I look like is quite base."
Working in Washington, D.C., and trying to be a presence in a far-flung district has proven a challenge both for McKinney and for her young son, Coy. At first McKinney thought she might be able to cover all of her Capitol Hill business in just three days out of each week. That quickly proved impossible, and she soon found herself juggling a full congressional schedule, weekend visits to her state offices, and quality time with her son, who lives in Atlanta with his grandparents. The adjustment was difficult, but Coy has had the benefits of summer vacations in Washington and the opportunity to meet the president and numerous visiting dignitaries.
McKinney reflected on the difficulties of single parenting in a 1994 Ebony profile. "While on the one hand, my commitment to the public good and public service is a part of what I stand for politically, I can't do that at the expense of raising my child," she said. "I've tried to expose my son to that public expectation and I think he rolls with the punches much better than I do." She added: "Even with its difficulties, the fact that I'm a member of Congress allows me to expose my son to all of the diversity of American life and to the world. It's been a positive experience for me and for him."
Promoted Liberal Interests
An acknowledged liberal who sometimes votes against liberal interests if they collide with those of her constituents, McKinney established a vocal presence on Capitol Hill. She supported President Clinton's legislative agenda on numerous occasions, but despite much presidential prodding, she voted against the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. On behalf of her district, she enlisted the Environmental Protection Agency to help clean up an Augusta neighborhood tainted with industrial pollution, and she obtained federal money to pave some of the rural roads. At the same time, she challenged the powerful kaolin companies in her district and urged the Justice Department to investigate antitrust violations among the kaolin mines. She has also been a presence on the Congressional Black Caucus, the Progressive Caucus, and the Women's Caucus.
In the middle of her second term in Congress, McKinney faced a potentially devastating blow in 1995 when the United States Supreme Court ruled that the boundaries of her 11th district were unconstitutional, as they had been drawn solely on the basis of race. Overnight McKinney became the symbol of a new sort of civil rights struggle as politicians fought to redraw Georgia's congressional districts to suit their interests. Before the redrawing, McKinney's 11th district had been 60 percent black; after the redrawing, the new 4th district was just 32 percent black. In a heated 1996 election contest that saw her father discharged from her campaign for accusing her opponent of being a "racist Jew," McKinney pulled off a major surprise, winning the seat with 59 percent of the vote and becoming the first black woman elected to represent a Congressional district with a white majority.
Not only did McKinney win her seat, she kept it, winning reelection in 1998 and 2000. Her growing seniority allowed her access to more prestigious committee assignments, including posts on the National Security Committee and the International Relations Committee (as a member of the latter's International Operations and Human Rights Subcommittee). She became increasingly interested in foreign policy, offering support to new governments in the African countries of Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She also became a vocal supporter of the idea of creating a Palestinian state in Israeli-occupied territory, a stance that won her the support of Arabs and Muslims throughout the world. It was this latter stance, however, that brought McKinney into her greatest controversy in office.
Even before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, McKinney was a vocal critic of American policy in the Middle East, especially in Iraq. She openly criticized President Bush's pre-9/11 policies on Iraq, and her criticisms became even more vocal after the attacks. She lambasted New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani when he refused an offer of $10 million in aid from a Saudi Arabian prince. Then, she indicated that President Bush may have known about the 9/11 attacks before they occurred and that his business associates had profited from the war of terror that followed the attack. McKinney's comments—often misquoted or misrepresented by a media eager for sensation—soon sparked a firestorm of controversy. A fellow legislator from her home state, Senator Zell Miller, called her "loony" and the National Review called her a "race-baiting conspiracy theorist." She was labeled as pro-terrorist by her political enemies, and it didn't help that she received campaign donations from Arab groups, including some who were linked to terrorism. In the election of 2002, McKinney could not overcome the negative associations she had earned in the last several years and she was defeated by another black female candidate, Denise Majette.
Despite the catastrophe of the 2002 election, McKinney ran for and was reelected to Congress in 2004. According to her campaign Web site, she intends to direct her "maximum effort into redirecting America's spending priorities to our children, seniors, neighborhoods, environment, veterans, and for peace." It remains to be seen whether McKinney will return to her role as a lighting rod for controversy, or whether she will be better known for her consistent efforts to work on behalf of her constituents.
Atlanta Constitution, November 4, 1992, p. 1A; November 27, 1992, p. 1A; July 1, 1995, p. 12A.
Atlanta Journal/Constitution, November 4, 1992, p. 8B; December 13, 1992, p. 10A; April 25, 1993, p. 2D; July 30, 1995, p. 3M.
Cosmopolitan, October 1994, pp. 220-21.
Ebony, September 1994, pp. 127-30.
Economist, July 24, 2004, p. 28.
Jet, November 22, 2004.
National Review, August 23, 2004, p. 12.
New African, May 2004, p. 66.
Newsweek, November 30, 1993, pp. 32-38.
The Hill, March 8, 1995, p. 38.
Time, December 5, 1994, p. 59.
U.S. News and World Report, December 28, 1992, p. 86; August 27, 2002.
Washington Post, August 2, 1993, p. 1A; July 5, 1995, p. 1C.
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July-August 2004.
Weekly Standard, January 3, 2005.
Cynthia McKinney for Congress 2004, www.cynthiaforcongress.com/ (June 8, 2005).
Representative McKinney Home Page, www.house.gov/mckinney/ (June 8, 2005).
—Ann Janette Johnson and
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