Cynthia McKinney's was not quite a household name in America before the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. To those who follow the goings-on on Capitol Hill, McKinney at the time was a feisty Georgia Democratic congresswoman who gave voice to issues no one else would touch, from voting rights, reparations and U.S. intelligence on Sept. 11, to Zimbabwe's defiance of U.S. will and increasing U.S. militarism abroad. To many of her constituents in the ethnically diverse Dekalb County�which includes one of Georgia's largest populations of affluent blacks and many wealthy whites�she was the elected official who really delivered. To others, she was too much the "homegirl," with a tendency to engage in what one former aide describes as "a down-home, us-against-them type of rhetoric"�all of which, it is said, alienated her from an enormous segment of Dekalb's increasingly sophisticated community.
She has a special relationship with the hip hop community. They see her as a friend and she sees them as a powerful force for social change. She was one of a few members of Congress who participated in Russell Simmons' first Hip-Hop Summit in New York City, and has endorsed the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network's 15-point national agenda that calls for equal justice for all without discrimination based on race, color, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, age, creed or class; the elimination of poverty; and the highest quality public education possible.
The name Cynthia McKinney became famous after 9/11. Today, the world has come to know her as the congresswoman who dared to ask, in reference to Sept. 11, "What did the Bush administration know and when did they know it?" It was a question for which she was pilloried, as news organizations bent her words into unrecognizable shapes in the swell of post-9/11 patriotism. The ultimate fallout came when McKinney was ousted from her congressional seat in an unprecedented storming of the Democratic primary in November 2002 by 48,000 historically Republican voters.
In the wider African-American community, many have begun to ask: Who is this woman? In an interview with The Network Journal, conducted by e-mail, McKinney responds: "I am a child of the civil rights era. . . . I call myself a child of the Movement because my father fought injustice after injustice and he carried me with him to most of those fights. And certainly, if I wasn't there personally, I lived them vicariously when he came home and discussed the events of the day."
At a time when African-Americans are looking for new leadership as the United States teeters at a crossroads in its history as a constitutional democracy, the bigger question is, Is Cynthia McKinney heir to the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, leaders who embodied courage, compassion, vision and integrity? TNJ decided to look for clues in her political formation, her own words and deeds, and in the sentiments of a few ordinary people.
Her Father's Daughter
McKinney's father, veteran Georgia State Representative Billy McKinney, who also lost his seat in the November 2002 rout, says he begged his daughter not to be like him. "I didn't want her to follow in my footsteps. I told her early on, �Don't be like me.' It's just hard for me to figure out why a woman with a Ph.D. would just give all of her time and all of her efforts to politics and helping people rather than acquiring wealth, which is the American way," he says.
With a history as a civil rights activist who had marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Washington, D.C., his pleas to his daughter were futile. She is "aggressive" and "headstrong," he says "If she believes in something, she's going after it."
Reflecting on her entry into politics, the former congresswoman points directly to her father. "My father, after having served in World War II to liberate the Europeans, and while still wearing his U.S. Army uniform on the train ride back to Georgia from New York, was arrested for drinking from the white water fountain at a train stop in South Carolina. You could say that was the beginning of my political involvement," she says. "After that, he became one of Atlanta's first black policemen and sometimes took to the streets to picket alone because the others were too afraid to stand up for themselves."
She began to volunteer in various political campaigns. "Then, when my father decided to stop begging other people to fight the injustices black people were facing, I volunteered in my father's campaign because, as he said, we have to stop begging others to do what we need to do for ourselves." The problems of African-Americans lie in the realm of public policy, she argues. "We must make public policy. . . . In the realm of public policy we can change things."
Elected to the Georgia state legislature in 1988, McKinney served as a representative alongside her father until she won a seat in the U.S. Congress in 1992. She was appointed to the prestigious House Armed Services Committee and the House International Relations Committee, where she fought the increased militarism of U.S. policy abroad and President George W. Bush's "attacks on our civil liberties at home." She also spoke out against "the appearance of profiteering that surrounded the Bush presidency and the fact that his father, due to his connection with the Carlyle Group, stood to gain financially from Bush's nearly unprecedented increases in defense spending."
The first African-American woman to represent Georgia in Congress, she became known as the "Voice of the Voiceless," delivering to Georgia "an unprecedented amount of money that targeted the communities most in need," she says.
A New Bid for Congress?
No one, not even her detractors, believed that McKinney's defeat in 2002 was the end of her political career. Michael Bowers, a former Georgia attorney general, contends that if McKinney runs again as a Democrat for her old seat in Congress, it would hurt the Democratic Party. Still, "anyone who knows Cynthia knows that her defeat would not be the end of her, because she is highly intelligent and very charismatic, and has demonstrated time and time again strong political and leadership skills," he wrote in the June 23 edition of the Atlanta Business Chronicle.
Is she running again for her seat in the 2004 House primary? "All it's fair to say is that I filed the paperwork last year, just before the lawsuit was filed," McKinney says.
The lawsuit in question challenges the results of the 2002 election that forced her out of Congress. It maintains, says McKinney, "that the block vote of white voters in my congressional election was tantamount to a white primary (outlawed by the Supreme Court in the 1940s) and a clear violation of the Voting Rights Act, denying black and Democratic voters their candidate of choice."
She urges African-Americans to pay close attention to the lawsuit. "If this case goes to trial, we will want to pack the courtroom every day. That will mean organizing for such an outcome," she says.
No doubt, the notoriety she gained over 9/11, albeit an unjustified "lynching," says investigative journalist Greg Palast in his book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (Plume, 2003), will continue to stalk her.
McKinney stands by her position, nonetheless. "How could a tragedy of this proportion be visited on the people of our country and every system designed to protect us fail? In Congress, we were given talking points to explain that we were hit because we are free. That the terrorists hate us because we are free. I was supposed to take those talking points and explain to my constituents why we had just suffered a tragedy of such proportions. It was silly and insulted my intelligence�as well as the intelligence of my constituents," she says.
Of course there is bitterness. "So much has come out now and I know of no one who has lost his or her job�except me," she says. She lost her job, she says, because of "a combination of silent Democrats, activist Republicans, and wealthy [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] donors who gave an incredible amount of money to my opponent."
Her father adds: "What happened to her has never happened in the history of politics in this country."
Concerns About the African-American Community
There is much that McKinney is eager to do by way of public policy for the African-American community. "Recent Supreme Court decisions are a cause for alarm, combined with the fact that important provisions of the Voting Rights Act expire in 2007," she says. "With the proliferation of anti-civil rights blacks today, I can envision our community waking up too late because the well-paid, anti-civil rights blacks will have drummed into us that we don't need the Voting Rights Act, just like they now say we don't need affirmative action." She did not name names.
She sees ignorance as a blight in the African-American community. "There is so much that our community needs to know and yet doesn't because we don't invest in knowledge. Every one of our homes should be connected to the Internet and we must read about our world. If we do that, we will begin to care and know that we can change our conditions through activism," she says.
Tech-savvy and globally astute, requirements in today's networked, globalized society, McKinney herself spends hours on the Internet reading about local, national and international affairs. It is not unusual to receive an e-mail from her that she sent at dawn.
She has a formula for political leadership: "The most important thing for a young black woman to do who has political aspirations is to educate herself, become a student first," she says. "Learn critical thinking. Then find someone you feel comfortable volunteering for and become indispensable to that team. In that way, you will acquire a reputation for dependability. Find your passion. Oh, do what you say and say what you mean. Pretty soon, you'll be ready to strike out on your own. And most importantly, don't be afraid."
A New Progressive Movement?
Progress for black America has always come about when a few good men and women challenge the system at great personal cost. The civil rights movement, for example, followed the courageous act of Rosa Parks and the challenge of King. Losing her congressional seat as a consequence of her bold stances was not a personal defeat for McKinney, many contend. Rather, says one admirer in New York, where lately she has been speaking to standing-room-only audiences, it was a stimulus to take the battle for truth and integrity to another level, to the national and international arena. "The local political machinery only works locally. It can never touch a universal light. McKinney's vision and mission are larger than a Georgia congressional district," says the admirer, who declined to be quoted by name.
Still, there are those who, while conceding McKinney's leadership potential, worry about her "weaknesses," the biggest of which, they say, is a lack of diplomacy and a tendency to speak first, then think later�precisely what cost her her seat in Congress. Not so, her mother, Leola McKinney, counters. "She reads all the newspapers, does so much research. If she's speaking, she's not going to say anything she hasn't researched."
Cynthia McKinney enjoys tremendous support for her unwavering commitment to the African-American community and most of all for her courage. And there is talk in the Green Party about making her its candidate for the 2004 presidential election.
At a speech at Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York in July, McKinney asked who will "blare" in the face of injustice, dishonesty and hypocrisy. Time and again she has shown that she is not afraid to do so. Is she the spark that will ignite a new progressive movement in the black community? That remains to be seen.
By Rosalind McLymont