November 18, 2003

McKinney: 'It's Time for Us to Change'

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Former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) drew a mixed reception yesterday at her first public appearance as a Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ’56 University Professor. McKinney lectured and then fielded questions from students in GOVT 366: American Political Thought from Madison to Malcolm X taught by Isaac Kramnick, the R.J. Schwartz Professor of Government and vice provost for undergraduate education.

McKinney was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia’s fourth congressional district in 1992, becoming the first African-American woman from the State of Georgia to be elected to the U.S. Congress.

McKinney’s three-year appointment at Cornell has created much controversy in Ithaca over the Rhodes selection process and has garnered national media attention because of McKinney’s outspoken criticism of the Bush administration.

In his introductory remarks, Kramnick gave a brief bio of McKinney, including her graduation from the University of Southern California in 1978. “Why’d you have to give the year?” McKinney piped in from her seat on the side of Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium.

McKinney then proceeded to give a brief lecture in which she touched on the people and experiences that have influenced who she is today.

“It was a heck of a day yesterday,” McKinney began. “I was in five different airports trying to get here. Not a complaint, but if I seem a bit discombobulated, please bear with me and understand,” she said.

“I’m a child of the civil rights movement … sometimes [my father] held me on his shoulders when he picketed,” McKinney said. She then cited that “young people like you in addition to my personal experiences” had influenced her life.

McKinney listed several of her influences, including President John F. Kennedy, 1960s freedom fighters and corporate whistle-blowers — “the average, ordinary people.” McKinney also named the late slain rapper, Tupac Shakur, as an “ordinary person who [did] extraordinary things.”

The floor was then turned over to questions from the audience, although Kramnick appeared to ask the first one himself when he stated, “I guess you can start by explaining who

Tupac is.”

In responding to the first question posed, which was about her criticism of President George W. Bush and the situation in Iraq, McKinney stressed, “We are now in a situation where terribly important decisions are being made [and] these decisions are affecting your lives.”

McKinney then took direct aim at U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, National Security Advisor.

“I don’t like how [their] opinions … run exactly counter to the tenets of the civil rights movement and what America is supposed to stand for and instead [mimic] the establishment[‘s] policies,” she said. McKinney cited that Rice may not have read all footnotes on memorandums that crossed her desk, although when pressed by an audience member for clarification, only claimed that, “I don’t think she’s done a very good job anyway.”

Speaking to the young audience, McKinney said, “If we don’t get involved now, and you don’t get involved now, just imagine what our country will be like just a few years from now … and the decisions that will be made. Who can you trust? Who can you count on? Can you be sure that our leadership is going to be there for you,” she asked rhetorically.

“No,” she answered herself, “unless you become the leaders. It’s time for us to change.”

McKinney then responded to the comment her father and former campaign manager, Billy McKinney, had made in 2002 following her electoral defeat. When asked for an explanation of the loss by a local reporter, the elder McKinney had responded that “Jews have bought everybody. Jews, J-e-w-s.”

“My father did say that, but I’m sure that he absolutely regrets that,” McKinney said. “What he was trying to say is that the supporters of AIPAC [The American Israel Public Affairs Committee] made public the fact that they were targeting me,” she said. “A race, a campaign that was about my ability to deliver to a district become much broader and international in its implications. What started out as a normal, typical campaign became a statement.”

McKinney then reiterated, “My father would admit that he was wrong … I am absolutely certain that that was not what my father would say if given the chance again.”

Responding to a question posed to her about feminist influences, McKinney discussed attending state fairs in the South in which “even though [she] was in this area that was hostile towards a black woman being a congressional representative, women were not quite as hostile.”

McKinney also then touched upon the recent controversy over remarks made by Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean to the Des Moines Register in which he told a reporter that he wanted to “be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.”

“Howard Dean is right,” McKinney said. “I live with the confederate flag and the controversy. The Democratic party has to find a winning message in the South. And how do you find a democratic message