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Congresswoman affected by high court ruling sparks black women's activism


SEATTLE -- In one short week, Cynthia McKinney has become the embodiment of what black female activists hope will be a new era of civil rights activism.

At the National Political Congress of Black Women conference, they swarm to her, clasping her hand, patiently lining up for a hug and a kiss on the cheek, promising prayers and financial support.

Ms. McKinney, until recently a relatively obscure Georgia congresswoman, has become a celebrity -- alongside stars such as Dionne Warwick and Melba Moore -- because of her pledge to battle what women see as a national conservative political tide.

On June 29, the Supreme Court ruled that the Justice Department was wrong to force creation of Ms. McKinney's congressional district in pursuit of racial equity. The decision puts in question the legality of many other black majority districts across the country.

That political blow followed another Supreme Court decision limiting federal purchasing set-asides that benefit minorities and a wave of conservative legislation in the new Republican Congress.

The black female activists meeting here are using strong language, invoking images of siege, destruction, warfare and evil to describe what they say is happening to black America, politically, economically and spiritually.

"I have tried to invoke hope and passion in a people who are numb from pain," Ms. McKinney said of her three years in Congress, representing a largely rural, poor district. "But real warriors don't wear medals; they wear scars."

Members of the 11-year-old National Political Congress, led by C. Delores Tucker, the Philadelphia civil rights activist, promised to launch a crusade to register blacks to vote, enlisting women as generals in the battle to turn the tide of the 1996 elections.

They say they will demand that Congress retain the departments of Education and Commerce, two vital entities in black America's attempt to maintain economic parity and job training.

The numbers show their goal is possible, Ms. Tucker insists.

In 1992, 86 percent of black female voters voted for President Clinton, the largest rate for any group, Ms. Tucker said. But in 1994, 80 percent of eligible African-Americans failed to vote.

Ms. McKinney and others in the Congressional Black Caucus fear that the Supreme Court ruling may set the stage for the loss of most of the black seats in Congress.

They say their 40 seats could dwindle to three if the Georgia decision and other redistricting challenges nationwide prevail.

The new danger comes at a time when black women have been making extraordinary political gains.

The number of black female elected officials has increased from 140 in 1970 to more than 2,100 today, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

San Francisco City Supervisor Willie B. Kennedy said the Supreme Court's rulings had caught many black officials by surprise.

"I've seen things go from bad to worse in my 14 years in office," she said. "We've become so complacent that we don't take notice of what's going on around us until it hits us between the eyes. That's what's happening with affirmative action and redistricting, and that's why we're committed to the Congress."

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