James Edward “Billy” McKinney Laid to Rest
by Cynthia McKinney
Former Georgia Congresswoman and Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney spoke at the funeral of her father and co-struggler, July 19. Thousands attended the ceremonies at Atlanta’s Jackson Memorial Baptist Church. “Billy” McKinney, born February 23, 1927, was one of Atlanta’s first Black policemen (1947) and a 30-year veteran of the state legislature.
James Edward “Billy” McKinney Laid to Rest
by Cynthia McKinney
“Through this journey with my father, I’ve learned to appreciate the African and Asian views of love--that its touch is so deep to our core as human beings, that it is unquantifiable, it is undefinable, and it is what helps to give us core and value and depth and meaning--when we find it.”
Reverend Creecy, Reverend Sutton, Reverend Rice, Elected Officials, and all of you.
Thank you all for being here with us today to honor my father and to help all of us who knew and loved him manage our collective grief. It’s funny how I never believed that it would come to this. You all know that Billy was larger than life. He was honest, smart, street-wise, pensive, yet playful. That’s why I can say without a doubt that Billy taught me how to live.
After I came back from a humanitarian mission to Gaza, but instead having spent 7 days in an Israeli prison, I went on a nationwide tour to tell interested communities what had happened to me. At the Seattle airport, a supporter who has now become my friend, paid me the highest compliment: she told me that I was “alive.”
I thought long and hard about that. Because, honestly, much to my father’s chagrin, there are so many people in our community who pass their days just marking time instead of making a difference. Billy knew that it was within our capacity to materially change our conditions, if we would only do what is required. He knew that because he did that. And somehow, he transmitted that faith in our fellow human beings to me and taught me to be free.
My father also taught me how to love. I’ve learned from my own personal experiences that it’s easy for us Americans to think that we can just order love and pick it up at the drive-through window. But through this journey with my father, I’ve learned to appreciate the African and Asian views of love--that its touch is so deep to our core as human beings, that it is unquantifiable, it is undefinable, and it is what helps to give us core and value and depth and meaning--when we find it.
Billy taught me love on two levels. He taught me the kind of love that would risk his job to challenge police brutality; that would challenge racism and discrimination; that would give away my Christmas “Etch-a-Sketch” the day after Christmas to a needy child in Bowen Homes. I never forgot that.
And so, I learned to love my community because every action in my father’s being showed me how to do that. I learned to love humanity because I saw my father grow in his own attitudes and admit that he was wrong about gays and apologize to them in 1996 when he saw their dedication to me after I was forced into a bruising legal battle to remain in Congress and it was only the white gay community in Atlanta that would cross the racial "Maginot" line that is Candler Road out in Decatur and come into my campaign headquarters and fold letters and stuff envelopes and answer phones and do whatever was necessary to help me win reelection in a vastly redrawn district. And I did win in a hotly contested race.
My father loved people. He sacrificed too much in the way of personal wants and his family sacrificed, too, because his focus wasn’t on only us, it was on his beloved community, too.
But he has been unfairly smeared by special interests in this town who want to preserve *their* interests at the expense of yours. And my father was not about to sacrifice your interests. In my father, you had a protector and I know you all know that.
“He has been unfairly smeared by special interests in this town who want to preserve their interests at the expense of yours.”
And so, when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other aspects of the pro-Israel Lobby in this country, including their supporters right here in Georgia, targeted me for defeat, my father came to my rescue by telling the truth. I was targeted by the pro-Israel Lobby because I dared to question the Bush Administration about what happened on September 11, 2001 and because I have the audacity to believe that no group of people, including Palestinians who *are* the Semitic people in this discussion, by the way, should suffer as Blacks in the United States have suffered. Billy McKinney called them out and let you know the truth about what was going on and who was doing it in the midst of intentionally-created confusion and campaign chaos.
That chaos included acts of political sabotage, including both my father and I being abandoned by some of our closest personal and political friends. The attack on us was total. And the battle was for your mind so that you would lose respect for someone unafraid of speaking truth to power. My father came to my defense because I rightly questioned how George Bush could “win” an election in which he lost the vote; why Africa’s diamonds, oil, cobalt, copper, uranium, coltan, timber, and fisheries enriched economies in Europe, the United States, and Israel while Africa remained broke and broken. What I was doing went to the core of the existing power configuration in this country and I began to expose its method of finance.
Afterall, I was sent to Washington to represent you. Only thing was that when I got attacked, Billy came to my defense. And he was punished for doing so. Every bad word you read or hear in the special interest press about either one of us, just know that the powerful individuals who operate in the shadows of power, pulling the strings of your elected officials, the U.S. military, government contracts--they all want to keep things in your life exactly as they are now and Billy McKinney understood fully that we need change, but that we are not going to get the deep, structural kind of change we need--we can’t get it on the cheap.
Billy McKinney made the kind of principled sacrifices that allow us to sleep better at night.
Lord, what are we going to do now?
Billy McKinney was all about love. And Billy McKinney loved Leola. During his illness, he would just sit and stare at my mother. And she would ask him what he’s looking at. And he would say “I’m admiring how beautiful you are.”
“Billy taught me to understand that even at the depth of my grief, I must never forget the grief of others.”
Billy and Leola were the definition of love. And in these last months, they have shown me how devoid my life is of that kind of undefinable, unquantifiable love. In that regard, I have a lot of introspection to do.
Billy McKinney also taught me how to cry. Over these past few months, I didn’t know my body could create so many tears. I have never in my life known this kind of sadness. But Billy taught me to understand that even at the depth of my grief, I must never forget the grief of others: that mothers are crying all over the world because of U.S. policy.
My father was such a strong black man. It would make me cry just to watch him endure his illness with such grace and dignity. He never complained. No matter how much discomfort my father was in, his universal response was “it’s all good.” And one day at the hospital he was so uncomfortable, he was really uncomfortable, but I heard him say aloud to himself, “It’s gonna be alright, anyway.”
One day he wanted the nurse to reposition him. He was getting his medicine in a way that prevented him from being moved, but he was uncomfortable. So he begged the nurse to please reposition him. Then, as the nurse was about to leave the room, Billy turned to me and asked, “Did she give in?”
Billy McKinney taught me how to live and how to love, how to cry and how to die. My father, BIlly McKinney, was a hell of a man.
On behalf of the family, I’d like to thank all of you for the love you gave my father during his life and the support you give to us now.
A Glimpse into the life of Honorable James Edward “Billy” McKinney
[Sunrise February 23, 1927 -- Sunset July 15, 2010]
James Edward “Billy” McKinney was born to the late Ann Lewis in Atlanta, Georgia. He was raised by his loving grandmother, Annie Bell Dixon.
Billy joined the U.S. Army in 1945. Upon his return to Georgia from the European war theatre, while still wearing his U.S. Army uniform, Billy was arrested for drinking from the “White Only” water fountain.
He attended Clark Atlanta, University and joined the fraternity Phi Beta Sigma.
In his younger days, Billy was an avid tennis player. He also spent a lot of time reading and researching, turning himself into a "walking encyclopedia." His unique view of the world sometimes found him at odds with so-called conventional wisdom, but Billy McKinney was true to his principles, regardless.
“Billy,” as he is fondly known by family, friends and colleagues grew up to become a socially and politically conscious young man; always fighting for justice and equality. This mind-set led him to join the Atlanta Police Department in 1947. Billy was one of the first black policemen in the City of Atlanta. He often reflected on walking the streets of Atlanta being allowed to police only “colored” folk, since Black policemen were not allowed to arrest Whites. He readily recognized this injustice and formed a one-man protest, picketing the Atlanta Police Department headquarters on his off days, often in his police uniform and much to the ire of his fellow officers.
It was on his Grady Hospital “beat” that he met and married his loving wife of 56 years, Leola Christion McKinney. To this union, was born a daughter, Cynthia Ann McKinney. Billy also had 2 sons, Gregory and James, from a previous marriage.
Billy made a conscious decision that picketing from the outside was not as effective as being on the inside as a part of the law-making body, helping to make laws that made sense. He ran unsuccessfully for Alderman, County Commissioner, as well as U.S. Congress as an Independent Candidate in 1982, against Wyche Fowler.
Billy McKinney was NOT a quitter, and in 1970, was elected to the Georgia State Legislature after the passage of the 1965 Voting rights Act mandated election law changes in the State of Georgia. His position in the Legislature was accompanied by that of his daughter in 1989, as she too was elected to the Georgia State Legislature. Thus, Billy and Cynthia served as the first father-daughter team of lawmakers in the history of the State of Georgia. Billy served as an elected official in the State where he was born and raised for more than 30 years.
Many bills were enacted during his years as a public servant that changed the legislative landscape of the State of Georgia. In tribute to his service, a stretch of Interstate 285, from I-20 to the Cobb County line is named in his honor; Representative James E. “Billy” McKinney Highway.
Billy was one of the forgotten Civil Rights advocates and activists. He often joined causes for justice and equality with his then-young daughter on his shoulders. He marched with the more recognized leaders and fought just as hard with the less recognized, but just as important people in the neighborhoods and communities in Atlanta.
His political prowess was recognized across the nation and the world, and his advice and counsel were sought from elected officials and candidates for elected office near and far. He was requested to tell his life story annually for a period of time to students from California State University at Pomona, as the group toured the South on their Civil Rights Tour; and he often spoke at events of socially conscious organizations. Billy served on numerous boards and was active in many organizations.
He leaves to cherish his memory his wife, Leola; daughter, former Congresswoman Cynthia Ann; 2 sons, James and Gregory; one grandson, Coy and 2 granddaughters, Morgan and Lauren; sisters-in-law Joan Christian (Thurman), Atlanta, GA, Virginia Christion, (Roosevelt “Fat”), Birmingham, AL; brothers-in-law Ernest Christion (Luvenia), Birmingham, AL, Haywood Christion (Wylean), Birmingham, AL Eugene Christion (Cassandra) Atlanta, GA; and many loving nieces, nephews, cousins, neighbors, and friends.