Former state Rep. Billy McKinney, who put the fire in the term firebrand, died Thursday. He was 83.
McKinney was in hospice care at the time of his death. His wife, Leola, and other family members and friends were with him in his southwest Atlanta home when he took his last breath Thursday morning. He had cancer.
“We lost a guy that had more courage than anybody I’ve ever known,” said former state Rep. Frank Redding, who was at McKinney's bedside when he died.
Redding said in the end McKinney was unable to speak.
But he was known for speaking his mind, regardless of whom he offended or the political ramifications.
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“There’s an old saying that one courageous man in a crowd is a majority,” Redding said. “Billy was that man.”
He once pulled a knife on a legislative colleague in the state House.
He also threatened a Connecticut congressman who had just testified in federal court against the “max black” legislative and congressional maps that got his daughter elected to the U.S. House. And he was known for anti-Semitic remarks.
McKinney was one of the first blacks on the Atlanta police force. Yet he still carried a picket sign in a one-man protest of his employer, demanding that the Atlanta Police Department hire and promote more blacks and that cops on the street afford African-American civilians better treatment.
McKinney was elected to the Georgia House in 1973, easily winning almost every election until 2002 when his legislative career ended in a intra-party runoff loss to a white newcomer, John Noel.
McKinney blamed his constituents for his loss, complaining that his black supporters "did not turn out for me. They wanted a Klansman, a son of the Confederacy."
During that election, McKinney, his health failing, had put all his energy into his daughter’s congressional race, sacrificing his own political career.
As a girl, Cynthia McKinney got real-life tutorials in politics tagging along with her father to political events and demonstrations.
They pair went on to become the first father-daughter duo to serve simultaneously in the Georgia Legislature when Cynthia was elected to the Legislature in 1988.
She earned a similar reputation for forthrightness.
“Look at Cynthia,” said former Rep. Frank Redding, the longtime friend. “That’s Billy.”
The McKinneys were usually allies on the House floor, but they disagreed on some issues, including gay rights. Cynthia McKinney wanted to strike Georgia's law against sodomy for everyone, but her father only wanted to eliminate it for heterosexuals.
It was the father's defense of his daughter that seemed to cause him almost constant trouble.
In 1994, when a federal judge was hearing a challenge to the “max black” congressional and legislative maps that had elected a number of African Americans, including his daughter, McKinney confronted a black Connecticut congressman who had just testified against the plan. McKinney followed U.S. Rep. Gary Franks (R-Conn.) to his car, parked just steps from the federal courthouse, shouting racial slurs and threatening a fight. McKinney eventually apologized to the federal judge and was fined $500, causing McKinney to cry in relief that he would not be jailed.
In 2002, he told reporters that "J-E-W-S" were responsible for his daughter's failed primary re-election run that year.
"Obviously, it was pretty blatant anti-Semitism,” said former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, now president of the advocacy group the Buckhead Coalition. “He’s the type who would say that some of his best friends were Jews and not know that he was being anti-Semitic … like someone saying ‘some of my best friends are black.’”
In the Legislature, Billy McKinney often used props to make a point. On one day, he repeatedly blew a whistle that sounded like a train horn while he was on the floor of the Gold Dome. It was his way of protesting that leaders were moving legislation too fast for careful consideration.
In 2000, McKinney cast the only vote against ethics reform legislation. “I'm sick of this ethics stuff. It goes on and on and on. I think we've got enough ethics, " McKinney said after the vote.
McKinney had his own causes. He was at the forefront of the fight to increase the number of black judges in Georgia. He helped lead an effort to change the state flag, which then included the St. Andrews Cross, an element of the Confederate battle flag that offended many blacks. He advocated for more money for MARTA. And he supported police.
"Billy McKinney was a great lawmaker, a great law enforcement officer and we'll miss him dearly," said Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta) who met McKinney in 1969 while McKinney was picketing, alone, outside Atlanta City Hall.
Massell, who took office after McKinney had joined the police force, recalled him as a strong-willed advocate who wasnt' always empathetic.
“Billy was adversarial most of his life,” Massell said. “He was an activist, and a very outspoken one.”
Still, Massell said, McKinney will likely be remembered as someone who “left this community a better place” by helping to integrate racial politics despite his strong views on the topic.
McKinney had roots as a civil rights “warrior” accustomed to claiming the moral high ground, and he carried that attitude into politics, said former state Sen. Eugene Walker. It proved to be both a strength that rallied people to his cause and a weakness that alienated others, Walker said.
“In the political arena, to win the game, you have to master to some degree the art of compromise,” Walker said.
Yet McKinney’s commitment to his cause was always clear, said Walker, who is black.
“The passion of his life was to try to improve the lives of black folks," Walker said.
Redding said McKinney was part of a generation of black activists that paved the way for contemporary black leaders. “When you look at the Kasim Reeds of the world,” he said, referring to Atlanta’s mayor, “think about Billy McKinney.”