Cynthia Ann McKinney was born on March 17, 1955 in Atlanta, Georgia to parents Billy McKinney, who was a police officer and to a mother, Leola Christion McKinney, who was a nurse. Her father was a political activist who challenged his employer, the Atlanta Police Department, for its practice of racial discrimination. This desire to use activism in the cause of racial justice was inherited by Cynthia McKinney who initiated her first petition against racism while still in school. In 1971 she challenged a teacher at the Catholic institution for using racist language. Meanwhile, her father, Billy McKinney was elected to the Georgia State Legislature in 1973 as a Democrat.
After completing St. Joseph’s High School in Atlanta in 1973, McKinney in 1978 received a degree in international relations from the University of Southern California. This degree would serve her well in the future as became increasingly concerned about the role and impact of U.S. foreign around the world. McKinney then entered the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. There she met and Jamaican politician Coy Grandison and returned to Jamaica with him.
McKinney’s political career began in 1986 when her father, Billy McKinney persuaded his 31-year-old daughter become a write-in campaign for another legislative seat. Without any campaigning because she lived in Jamaica at the time, and little help from other Democrats, Cynthia McKinney still managed to get 20% of the total vote. Two years later she decided to mount an all-out campaign for the seat. Elected in 1988 at the age of 33, McKinney was one of the youngest members of the state legislature. She and her father became the first father-daughter pair in the Georgia legislature.
McKinney soon became controversial in the Georgia legislature for opposing the Gulf War and for challenging the chamber’s dress code by wearing slacks instead of dresses. She also joined Georgia civil rights leaders in a lawsuit to increase the number of