MCKINNEY, Cynthia Ann

McKINNEY, Cynthia Ann
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1955–

Biography

Elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1992, Cynthia McKinney was the first African-American woman from Georgia to serve in Congress. With a background in foreign policy, McKinney used her seat on the Armed Services and International Relations Committees to address human rights issues. The outspoken Representative, whose foreign policy views sometimes cut against the grain, lost re-election in 2002. Two years later, voters in her DeKalb County district returned her to the House for a single term, making her one of a handful of Congresswomen who served nonconsecutive terms.

Cynthia Ann McKinney was born on March 17, 1955, in Atlanta, Georgia, to Leola Christion McKinney, a nurse, and James Edward (Billy) McKinney, a police officer, civil rights activist, and longtime legislator in the Georgia state house of representatives. Her father, Billy, joined the Atlanta police department in 1948 as one of its first African- American officers. Cynthia McKinney’s participation in demonstrations with her father inspired her to enter politics.1 While protesting the conviction of Tommy Lee Hines, an intellectually disabled Black man charged with raping a white woman in Alabama, McKinney and other protestors were threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. “That was probably my day of awakening,” McKinney recalled. “That day, I experienced hatred for the first time. I learned that there really are people who hate me without even knowing me… . That was when I knew that politics was going to be something I would do.”2

McKinney graduated from St. Joseph High School and, in 1978, earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the University of Southern California. She later pursued graduate studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. In 1984 she served as a diplomatic fellow at Spelman College in Atlanta. She then taught political science at Agnes Scott College in Decatur and at Clark Atlanta University. Cynthia McKinney married Coy Grandison, a Jamaican politician. The couple had a son, Coy Jr., before divorcing.3

In 1986 Billy McKinney registered his daughter as a candidate for the Georgia state house of representatives without her knowledge. She lost that race to the incumbent but, without even campaigning, won 20 percent of the vote on name recognition alone. Two years later, in 1988, McKinney won election as an at-large state representative in the Georgia legislature, defeating Herb Mabry, who would later head the state AFL-CIO.4 The McKinneys became the first father-daughter combination to serve concurrently in the same state legislature.5 McKinney’s father expected her to be a close political ally, but he was soon confronted with his daughter’s political independence. “He thought he was going to have another vote,” she recalled, “but once I got there, we disagreed on everything … I was a chip off the old block, a maverick.”6

During the late 1980s, McKinney and other Georgia legislators pressed the U.S. Justice Department to create additional majority-Black congressional districts so that African-American voters would have more equitable representation. In 1992 the Georgia legislature created two additional majority-Black districts (Georgia previously had only one) and McKinney chose to run in the sprawling 260-mile-long district that included much of DeKalb County east of Atlanta to Augusta and extended southward to the coastal city of Savannah, encompassing or cutting through 22 counties, and both inner cities and rural communities.7

McKinney moved into the new district, and her father managed her campaign. In the five-way Democratic primary, McKinney used a strong grassroots network to place first, with 31 percent of the vote.8 In a runoff against second-place finisher George DeLoach—a funeral home director and the former mayor of Waynesboro, Georgia—McKinney won with 54 percent of the vote.9 In the heavily Democratic district, she won election to the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), with 73 percent of the vote, against her Republican opponent, Woodrow Lovett. Reflecting on an election that propelled record numbers of women and African Americans into congressional office, McKinney said shortly afterward, “Now we have people in Congress who are like the rest of America. 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.”10

When McKinney was sworn in to the 103rd Congress in January 1993, she received assignments on the Committee on Agriculture and the Committee on Foreign Affairs (later named International Relations). Over the next several Congresses she received seats on several other panels. In the 104th Congress (1995–1997) she won a spot on the Banking and Finance Committee, where she served two terms. In the 105th Congress (1997–1999) McKinney was assigned to the National Security Committee (later renamed Armed Services).

McKinney quickly became known by her trademark pair of gold tennis shoes and her Mickey Mouse watch. Shortly after she entered the House in 1993, one reporter described McKinney as possessing “uncommon poise and a decidedly unpinstriped wardrobe.”11 A member of the largest class of first-term women lawmakers up to that point in congressional history, McKinney also was part of a newly elected vanguard of Black Congresswomen, many from the South, who emerged from state legislatures onto the national political scene.12 She was known to work hard and to stand up against the traditions of the mostly male institution. “She’s not a showboat, she’s a workhorse,” observed Representative Patricia Schroeder of Colorado; “workhorse” is a term commonly used to describe Members who work tirelessly behind the scenes. “She stands up to the old bulls, and is very strong in everything she does,” Schroeder added.13

McKinney had cultivated her unapologetic legislative style in the Georgia state house, and she brought it with her to Congress. In January 1991, she delivered a blistering speech attacking the first Gulf War and President George H. W. Bush: two-thirds of the legislators in the Georgia statehouse left the chamber after McKinney derided the military action as “the most inane use of American will that I have witnessed in a very long time.” She added, “America must be willing to fight injustice and prejudice at home as effectively as America is ready to take up arms to fight ‘naked aggression’ in the international arena.”14 In 1995 she infuriated House Republican leaders when she suggested that an independent counsel investigate Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia for violating the chamber’s gift rules because he accepted free air time on cable television to broadcast a college course.15 In 2000 McKinney accused Vice President Albert Arnold Gore Jr. of having a “low Negro tolerance level” for not having more African-American officers on his security detail. She later claimed the remark was part of a draft press release not intended for public distribution, but she did push the William J. (Bill) Clinton administration to investigate charges of discrimination in the Secret Service.16

In the House, McKinney advocated for poor and working-class Americans and spoke out on issues ranging from human rights abuses abroad to social inequities at home. She also opposed federal efforts to restrict access to abortions—particularly a long-standing measure known as the Hyde Amendment that largely eliminated Medicaid coverage for abortions. In a debate on the House Floor, McKinney described the amendment as “nothing but a discriminatory policy against poor women, who happen to be disproportionately black.”17

A court challenge shortly after McKinney’s 1994 reelection (with 66 percent of the vote) placed her at the epicenter of a national debate over the constitutionality of minority-conscious redistricting. Five white voters from the rural parts of her district (including her former opponent in the Democratic primary, George DeLoach) filed a suit claiming they had been disenfranchised because the state drew “an illegally gerrymandered district to benefit black voters,” as one critic noted. McKinney said she had made great efforts to reach out to her rural constituents but that her entreaties had been met with “resistance” or “silence.”18 A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1995 invalidated Georgia’s congressional district map as a “racial gerrymander” that violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. A panel of federal judges from three courts remapped Georgia’s districts before the 1996 elections, and the Black population of McKinney’s district dropped from 64 percent to about 33 percent. Although McKinney was forced to run in a majority-white district, the political network that figured heavily in her previous campaigns helped her prevail against Republican challenger John M. Mitnick, with 58 percent of the vote.19 McKinney subsequently won re-election twice by comfortable margins of about 60 percent. Reapportionment in 2002 placed McKinney in a district that again was predominantly African American (roughly 53 percent of the population).20

On the International Relations Committee, where she eventually served as the Ranking Member on the International Operations and Human Rights Subcommittee, McKinney tried to curb weapons sales to countries that violated human rights—sponsoring the Arms Transfers Code of Conduct, which passed the House in 1997, to prevent the sale of weapons to dictators. In 1999 she partnered with a Republican colleague to insert a similar provision into a State Department reauthorization bill. A year later, she voted against granting full trade relations with China, citing Beijing’s poor human rights record. McKinney frequently challenged American foreign policy during this period, including American intervention in Kosovo, longstanding U.S. sanctions against Iraq, and much of U.S. policy in the Middle East.21

McKinney’s actions after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks caused her political difficulty. First, she offered to accept a check from a wealthy Saudi prince after New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani rejected it because the prince said the September 11 attacks were a response to U.S. policies in the Middle East.22 Then, in a 2002 radio interview, McKinney suggested that officials in the George W. Bush administration had prior knowledge about the attacks but remained silent because they stood to gain financially from military spending in the aftermath of the attacks. Alluding to the still-contentious recount of votes in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, and the Supreme Court ruling that resulted in the Republican presidency, McKinney said, “an administration of questionable legitimacy has been given unprecedented power.”23 At a time when much of the nation was supportive of the administration in the wake of the September 11 attacks, McKinney’s comments were criticized.24

In the 2002 Democratic primary McKinney faced Denise Majette, an African-American former state judge who had never run for office. Majette ran on a platform contrasting her moderation and centrism with McKinney’s rhetoric, which Majette’s campaign implied had gone too far. America’s foreign policy toward Israel emerged as a flash point during the campaign, and the race drew national attention. In the August 20, 2002, primary, Majette, who had a two-to-one funding advantage, prevailed by a 58-to-42 percent margin and went on to win the general election.25

Two years later, when Majette made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate, McKinney entered the race to reclaim her old congressional seat. She won the Democratic primary with 54 percent of the vote. McKinney ran an understated campaign that steered clear of extensive media coverage and, as in her earlier runs for Congress, relied on a vigorous grassroots effort. McKinney won the general election to the 109th Congress (2005–2007) easily with 64 percent of the vote against Republican Catherine Davis.26 McKinney regained her assignment on the Armed Services Committee and picked up a seat on the Budget Committee.

In late March 2006, McKinney allegedly hit a Capitol Hill police officer who stopped her at the entrance to one of the House of f ice buildings and asked for identification. McKinney claimed she was a victim of racial profiling and, according to news accounts, described the police officer who stopped her as “racist.” A grand jury investigated the incident but declined to indict McKinney.27

A few months later, in July 2006, McKinney failed to win 50 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary against DeKalb County commissioner Hank Johnson Jr., an African-American lawyer whose simple campaign message was “Replace McKinney.” In the runoff, Johnson prevailed by a 59-to-41 percent margin, taking 60 percent of the vote in McKinney’s former stronghold in DeKalb County.28

After leaving the House in January 2007, McKinney remained active in national politics. In December 2007, she announced her candidacy as the Green Party nominee for the 2008 presidential election.29

Footnotes

1Kim Masters, “The Woman in the Hot Seat: Rep. Cynthia McKinney Just Lost Her District and She Wants It Back,” 5 July 1995, Washington Post: C1.

2Masters, “The Woman in the Hot Seat.”

3Charmagne Helton, “Georgia Campaign ’96: McKinney Never Known to Duck a Fight,” 13 October 1996, Atlanta Journal and Constitution: 9G; Bill Kemper and Bill Trophy, “Cynthia McKinney: She’s No Stranger to Clashes, Criticism,” 16 April 2006, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A.

4Steve Harvey, “The 11th District: Charm Mixed with Savvy—McKinney Has Made Meteoric Rise in Politics,” 13 August 1992, Atlanta Journal and Constitution: B4.

5“McKinney, Cynthia Ann,” Current Biography, 1996 (New York: H.W. Wilson and Company, 1996): 353.

6Current Biography, 1996: 353.

7Current Biography, 1996: 353; Harvey, “The 11th District: Charm Mixed with Savvy—McKinney Has Made Meteoric Rise in Politics.”

8Kristine F. Anderson, “Georgia House Race May Be a First,” 14 September 1992, Christian Science Monitor: 8.

9Steve Harvey, “Election ’92: 11th District—McKinney Captures Victory Over DeLoach,” 12 August 1992, Atlanta Journal and Constitution: D4.

10Anne Janette Johnson, “Cynthia Ann McKinney,” Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 11 (Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1996).

11Maureen Dowd, “Growing Sorority in Congress Edges Into the Ol’ Boys’ Club,” 5 March 1993, New York Times: A1.

12Marcia Gelbart, “Lifelong Civil Rights Advocate Watches as Supreme Court Decides Her Fate,” 8 March 1995, The Hill: n.p.

13Gelbart, “Lifelong Civil Rights Advocate Watches as Supreme Court Decides Her Fate.”

14Editorial, “War Debate Lights Spark in State House; Aiding the Enemy or Laying Out the Facts?,” 19 January 1991, Atlanta Journal and Constitution: A19; Rhonda Cook and Brian O’Shea, “A Day of Anguish, Prayers; In House, Legislator Lashes Out at Bush; Others Walk Out on Her,” 18 January 1991, Atlanta Journal and Constitution: D1; Johnson, “Cynthia Ann McKinney,” Contemporary Black Biography.

15Katharine Q. Seelye, “Ethics Panel Needs Weeks on Gingrich,” 24 February 1995, New York Times: A14.

16“Georgia 4th District: Cynthia McKinney,” 6 November 2004, National Journal: 3363–3364; Politics in America, 2002 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2001): 266.

17Current Biography, 1996: 353; Masters, “The Woman in the Hot Seat.”

18Masters, “The Woman in the Hot Seat”; Rhonda Cook, “Redistricting: The Ruling’s Impact,” 1 July 1995, Atlanta Journal and Constitution: 12A. For an analysis of the larger phenomenon of court challenges to racially gerrymandered congressional districts in the 1990s, see David T. Canon, Race, Redistricting, and Representation: The Unintended Consequences of Black Majority Districts (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999).

19Politics in America, 2002: 267;Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

20“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present”; Almanac of American Politics, 2002 (Washington, DC: National Journal Group, 2001): 444; Politics in America, 2004 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2003): 277.

21Associated Press, “Conduct Code for Weapons Customers OK’d,” 11 June 1997, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: 9A; Editorial, “State Department Authorization Stalls,” CQ Almanac, 1997, 53rd ed. (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1998), 8-32–8-36, https://library.cqpress.com; “Congress Folds State Department Authorization into Omnibus Spending Bill,” CQ Almanac, 1999, 14-3–14-10, https://library.cqpress.com; Congressional Record, House, 106th Cong., 2nd sess. (18 July 2000): H6408; Congressional Record, House, 106th Cong., 1st sess. (11 March 1999): H1198; Kemper and Torpy, “Cynthia McKinney: She’s No Stranger to Clashes, Criticism.”

22Betsy Rothstein, “Rep. McKinney: An In-Your-Face Crusader,” 16 January 1992, The Hill: 1.

23Juliet Eilperin, “Democrat Implies Sept. 11 Administration Plot,” 12 April 2002, Washington Post: A16; Politics in America, 2004: 266.

24Betsy Rothstein, “McKinney Feels Vindicated by Democratic Criticism of Bush,” 22 May 2002, The Hill: 22.

25Darryl Fears, “Rhetoric Haunts McKinney in Ga.: Sept. 11 Remarks Lift Little-Known Rival’s Campaign,” 19 August 2002, Washington Post: A2; Lauren W. Whittington and Chris Cillizza, “On the Move: McKinney Challenger Levels Financial Playing Field,” 12 August 2002, Roll Call: 8. See also Thomas B. Edsall, “Questions Raised About Donors to Georgia Lawmaker’s Campaign,” 13 August 2002, Washington Post: A2; Thomas B. Edsall, “Impact of McKinney Loss Worries Some Democrats: Tension Between Blacks, Jews a Concern,” 22 August 2002, Washington Post: A4; “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

26“Georgia 4th District: Cynthia McKinney.”

27Eric M. Weiss and Petula Dvorak, “Indictment Rejected for Rep. McKinney; Police Union to Study Legal Options,” 17 June 2006, Washington Post: B4; Karen Juanita Carrillo, “Grand Jury: No Indictment Against McKinney,” 22 June 2006, New York Amsterdam News: 4; “Grand Jury Convened to Consider Charges Against McKinney,” 6 April 2006, The Frontrunner: n.p.; Josephine Hearn and Jonathan E. Kaplan, “McKinney in Fracas With Officer,” 30 March 2006, The Hill: 1.

28Rachel Kapochunas, “McKinney Likely to Survive Primary Despite Police Incident,” 11 July 2006, Congressional Quarterly Today: n.p.; Jonathan Weisman, “House Incumbents McKinney, Schwarz Fall in Primaries,” 9 August 2006, Washington Post: A5.

29Jeffry Scott, “McKinney to Run for President?,” 17 October 2007, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 3B; Jeffry Scott, “McKinney Takes Her Longest Shot,” 24 December 2007, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 1A.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

Emory University
Special Collections and Archives

Atlanta, GA
Papers: In the Margie Pitts Hames papers, 1969-1993, 98 linear feet. The papers include material from Cynthia McKinney's campaign for the House of Representatives in 1992-1993.

Georgia State University Library
Special Collections & Archives

Atlanta, GA
Papers: In the Mary N. Long Papers, ca. 1957-2000, 25 linear feet. The papers include campaign materials of Cynthia McKinney.

Yale University Library
Divinity Library Special Collections

New Haven, CT
Papers: In the Washington Office on Africa, Addendum A Records, ca. 1972-1996, 30 linear feet. Persons represented include Cynthia McKinney.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

Ford, Pearl K. "The Impact of Race on Electoral Outcomes of African American Congresspersons Following Redistricting (Cynthia McKinney, Sanford Bishop). Ph.D. diss., Howard University, 2003.

"Cynthia Ann McKinney" in Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2008.

"Cynthia A. McKinney" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Adminstration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Agriculture
  • House Committee - Armed Services
  • House Committee - Banking and Financial Services
  • House Committee - Budget
  • House Committee - Foreign Affairs
  • House Committee - International Relations
  • House Committee - National Security
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