McKinney, Cynthia Ann 1955—

views updated Jun 08 2018

Cynthia Ann McKinney 1955


At a Glance

In Her Fathers Footsteps

Trying the Political Waters

A Seat Under Siege


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 represents Georgias 11th district, which encompasses 22 counties and parts of suburban Atlanta, Augusta, and Savannah. McKinneys trademark gold running shoes and braided hair are 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. 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. Its 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: Were shaking up the place. If one of the godfathers says you cant do this, my next question is: Why not? And, who are you to say we cant?

McKinney 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. InNewsweek, 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 President Clinton 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 dont 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.

At a Glance

Born March 17, 1955 in Atlanta, GA; daughter of Billy (a state legislator) and Leofa (a retired nurse) McKinney; married Coy Grandison, c. 1983 (divorced); children: Coy Grandison, Jr. Education: University of Southern California, S.A., 1978; working on Ph.D. at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. Religion: Catholic.

Speiman College, Atlanta, G A, diplomatic fellow, 1984; professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University and Agnes Scott College, c. 1986-88; Georgia State Houseof Representatives, Augusta, representative, 1988-92; congresswoman from Georgias 11th district, 1992--. Member of Congressional Black Caucus, Progressive Caucus, and Womens Caucus (secretary, 1994-96), Former board member, HIV Health Services Planning Council of Metro Atlanta.

Member; National Council of Negro Women, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Sierra Club.

Addresses: Home-Decatur, GA. Office124 Cannon Bldg,, Washington, DC 20515; 1 South DeKalb Center, Suite 9, 2053 Candler Rd., Decatur, GA 30034.

In Her Fathers Footsteps

One of Cynthia McKinneys 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 congresswomans 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 theyre 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 theCatholic church although her parents are Baptists.

McKinney attended parochial school until her 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 bachelors degree in 1978. The following year found her back on the civil rights path with her father. They travelled 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. She 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 a pursuit of a doctorate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University. She is working on a thesis about the satellite states of the former Soviet Union. In 1984 she was a diplomatic fellow at Speiman 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.

Trying the Political Waters

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.

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 Bushs 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, revelling in her troubles, took to calling her Hanoi Cynthia.

In the late 1980s Cynthia McKinney joined a group of state legislators who were pressing Georgias 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.

American voters elected 110 new members-or fresh-men-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 her 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. Theres 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 time-saving 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, Shes got to be another Maxine Waters (a fiery liberal from Los Angeles). Well, heck, I dont 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.

A Seat Under Siege

An acknowledged liberal who will sometimes vote against liberal interests if they collide with those of her constituents, McKinney has established a vocal presence on Capitol Hill. She has supported President Clintons 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 has enlisted the Environmental Protection Agency to help clean up an Augusta neighborhood tainted with industrial pollution, and she has obtained federal money to pave some of the rural roads. At the same time, she has challenged the powerful kaolin companies in her district and has 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 Womens Caucus.

In the middle of her second term in Congress, McKinney faced a 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, one she sees as imperative to black representation in national politics. Cynthia McKinneys political future is uncertain, wrote Kim Masters in a 1995 Washington Post profile. The [Supreme] court probably will order the state legislature to redraw the district and there could be a special election. Or the matter might be deferred until 1996 or beyond. McKinney herself prefers not to feel victimized by the ruling, saying that the real losers are black voters and the other poor people of Georgia that she was trying to help. She declared in the Atlanta Constitution that she will absolutely remain in politics at some level and that hopefully she will retain her seat in Congress. Anyone who is in public life has to look at all of the options that are available, she concluded.

Working in Washington, DC 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 cant do that at the expense of raising my child, she said. Ive 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 Im a member of Congress allows me to expose my son to all of the diversity of American life and to the world. Its been a positive experience for me and for him.

As long as she remains in Congress, McKinney says she will be fighting for the people who put her in office in the first place. My constituents in Georgia were perceived by (former representatives) as I am perceived around here by security when I try to do just what I want to, and that is get around from place to place, she observed in The Hill.I have the people nobody wanted, that everybody thinks is nobody. McKinney, treated as a nobody herself and beset by everyone from congressional conservatives to the Supreme Court, will not back down from her agenda-to be a voice for diversity in a government ruled too long by white male interests. Male members of Congress, she warned in Cosmopolitan, had better keep an eye on us because theres no telling what well be up to. If the Congressional leadership thinks women will be satisfied with only the positions they tell us its okay for us to have, well surprise them. We have ambitions for leadership ourselves.


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.

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.

Washington Post, August 2, 1993, p. 1A; July 5, 1995, p. 1C.

Anne Janette Johnson

McKinney, Cynthia Ann

views updated Jun 27 2018

McKinney, Cynthia Ann

March 15, 1955

U.S. Congresswoman Cynthia Ann McKinney was born in Atlanta, Georgia. She was educated at the University of Southern California, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1978, and at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University.

Following graduation from college, McKinney was exposed to the painful sting of racism. On a trip with her father to Alabama to protest the conviction of Tommy Lee Hines, a retarded black man accused of a sexual attack on a white woman, Ku Klux Klan members threatened her. The National Guard settled the disturbance at the event. She decided then that she would enter politics.

McKinney was a fellow (studying diplomacy) at Spelman College in 1984. From 1988 to 1992 she taught at Clark Atlanta University and Agnes Scott College. Her career in politics began in 1988, when she was elected as an at-large member to the Georgia State House of Representatives. Her father, Billy McKinney, was already a member of the legislature and the two became the only fatherdaughter team in a state legislature. McKinney was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1992 where she quickly made a reputation as an outspoken, liberal crusader for the poor and rural citizens of her state. She gained notoriety with vehement arguments against Republicans on such issues as abortion.

McKinney's congressional district was redrawn prior to the 1996 election after being ruled unconstitutional, eliminating the black voter majority McKinney had enjoyed in her previous election wins. An overwhelmingly negative campaign between McKinney and her white Republican opponent followed, but McKinney won reelection for a third term, proving that a black liberal candidate could win in a white majority district.

In 2002 Democrat Denise Majette beat McKinney in her bid for reelection. McKinney had angered many with her comments that President George W. Bush knew beforehand about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and profited from them. In 2004 McKinney ran for her old seat in Congress and won handily over her Republican opponent.

See also Politics in the United States


"Cynthia Ann McKinney." Notable Black American Women, Vol. 3. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 2002.

raymond winbush (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005