Georgia Congresswoman Empowers `Voiceless' Blacks
WASHINGTON — BLACK, female, and young, newly seated Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney is part of the forward guard of a new generation infiltrating the corridors of traditionally white male power.
Her reception at the Capitol is perhaps the clearest example of how unusual the Georgia Democrat's presence here is: Guards at staff entrances and staff elevators still try to turn her away because she doesn't look like a member of Congress, she says.
But then, says Ms. McKinney, she's not trying to fit into a status quo that has traditionally left her constituents "voiceless and oftentimes voteless as well."
Instead, she wants Washington to adjust to where she's coming from: the newly drawn majority-black 11th District of Georgia. Extending through urban, suburban, and rural areas with high concentrations of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and teen pregnancy, the district that McKinney fought to create while she was a state representative is full of people "who have never seen a congress-person, never knew what Congress was," she says.
"Because I go into these meetings and hearings [here] and am invited to sit at the table, [my constituents] have a seat at the table where decisions are being made that will impact their lives. And that's what is new and different and exciting [about my being here]," she says.
Small behind her big government-issue desk, McKinney wore braids, a batik dress, and a Mickey Mouse watch during a recent interview. But her voice - fiercely pointed at times - fills her Capitol Hill office with authority. She is most vehement when explaining the needs of the black community.
McKinney, a 37-year-old divorced single mother of a seven-year-old boy, is the daughter of longtime State Rep. Billy Mc-Kinney, one of Atlanta's first black policemen. She grew up in Atlanta accompanying her father to civil rights demonstrations.
She bridles at questions of whether there is a new agenda - broader than that of the civil rights era of the 1960s - for a new generation of black leaders.
"The agenda for civil rights never stops," she says. "In fact in the 11th Congressional District, where we have black people who are [still] denied their right to vote, we have elections that have turned on blacks who have been turned away from the polls. No, I can't say that the civil rights era is over."
While the black agenda may have broadened to include economic questions, she says that basic civil rights remains a core issue that may sometimes be obscured by the growing success of many blacks.
"Certainly you've had those blacks who've been able to take advantage of the system as it is, and that's a good thing," she says. "But we need to have more blacks who are able to move up, and to do that we need to have a government that's more sensitive to the needs of the rest of us."
Black-community problems such as teenage pregnancy, limited access to health care, joblessness, and inferior education are all ultimately rooted in limits to civil rights, McKinney says.
And how much are these problems due to white racism? "Racism is sort of the structural construct around which our society today operates.... We have a lot of right-thinking, good-hearted white Americans who understand that there's a problem ... but nobody seems to know the answer...."
McKinney credits her career in politics and as a college instructor working on her doctorate in international affairs to being a "child of affirmative action." But, she adds, that doesn't mean that blacks have completely achieved the civil rights they are due.
She points to her own experience campaigning in rural Georgia as an example of how racism can still bar access to basic civil rights. She describes how local officials in one rural town escorted her out of the county rather than have her spend the night there, because of fears that Ku Klux Klan members, upset about being put into a majority-black district, might do her harm.
But she says the fact that the area elected her as the first black congresswoman from Georgia shows that things are changing. And getting "more people of color elected to city councils and county commissions and school boards" is a major part of the minority agenda for the 1990s, McKinney says.
But as a black leader, can she represent the interests of the 45 percent of her constituents who are not black?
"That was the fallacy all along of those who led white backlash movements: that there was some danger in incorporating blacks into the mainstream of whatever it was to be an American," McKinney says.
She adds: "[I] provide an opportunity for them to redeem themselves in a way that is tolerant of people who are different and accepting of differences of opinions."