The Naked Truth/Jamala Rogers
Take Care of This St. Louis
I found McKinney’s journey to Madison fascinating. At one point before she decided to go to college to become an educator, McKinney was a
single mom living in Canfield Apartments in Ferguson, Missouri. Her son was named Michael. What are the odds that years later, an unarmed
Black teen also named Michael, would be murdered in cold blood on the streets of the Canfield complex? The fatal shooting of Mike Brown by a
white police officer would result in Ferguson, MO becoming the fiery epicenter of Black rage. The shooting put an international spotlight on the
racist practices of Ferguson police, courts and city officials.
I asked Alder McKinney what were her thoughts when she heard about the murder of Mike Brown and saw the images of massive protests in
Ferguson on national television, knowing that she and her only son lived in that space. She replied in a resolute voice, “but for the grace of
God.” McKinney went on to reflect about the dangers of raising a Black boy in America and admitted she could’ve easily lost her son to police
or street violence purely based on the color of his skin.
This led to another point of intrigue and that was how Citizen McKinney ended up in Madison as an elected official. That’s when I found out
about Michael McKinney. In 1997 Mike McKinney was the first African American anchor and feature reporter on NBC-affiliate WMTV (Ch. 15)
fulfilling his childhood dream. For his nearly 20-year career, the popular television personality took his commitment to the community beyond
the anchor desk.
When his mother got the terrible news in 2005 that Mike was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer and had three months to live, Barbara
McKinney came to Madison with the sole intention of taking her son back home. One problem. Michael McKinney didn’t want to go back to St.
Louis; he saw Madison as his home. Three months turned into a year and during that time “Mike’s Mom” got introduced to the Madison that her
son had grown to love. Barbara also got a chance to see the kind of man her son had grown into, his impact on the Madison community. She
was incredibly proud to be “Mike’s Mom.”
Barbara made the decision to relocate to Madison and her son’s larger-than-life persona was ever present. She immersed herself in the
Madison community and built her own identity. She worked at Madison-area Urban Ministry, an agency that provides services to ex-felons. She
also taught restorative justice at Edgewood College. Her dedication and compassion didn’t go unnoticed. She was deeply appreciated by
clients and students. And outside the agency and the classroom, there were some that were looking at McKinney as a public servant on a
much different level.
What had begun to shine through was her training as a change agent in St. Louis. Active in her church, McKinney received training from the
Gamaliel Foundation. The Gamaliel leadership model trains citizens, mainly from congregations, to unleash their collective power to make
societal change. McKinney recalls her first taste of victory after the organizing training was when she was a part of an organized action to
force the light-rail system in St. Louis to link a bus route from the predominantly Black, working class neighborhoods to a Bi-State Metro Link
train. The training and subsequent organizing action were empowering and life-changing.
Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk encouraged McKinney to run for the 15th District Dane County Supervisor seat. McKinney reluctantly
tossed her hat in the ring and came within 43 votes of winning. McKinney said she had to admit to herself that she didn’t give the race her
usual 120 percent; she had allowed the little voice of self-doubt to become amplified in her ear. When Alder Lisa Subeck decided to run for
state legislature, she urged McKinney to run for her aldermanic seat. This time McKinney brought fire to the race and took her campaign
seriously even when others doubted she could win. Along with Sheri Carter, the two became the first African American women to serve on the
Common Council since Madison was incorporated as a city in 1846.
Barbara McKinney has proven that she’s an accomplished leader and with two successful elections in the rear-view mirror, she is not sitting
on her laurels. She’s looking forward to tackling the challenges facing Madison such as police-community relations, mass transportation and
McKinney says she no longer feels like the little church mouse sitting on the back pew. She may be a late bloomer, but she still “has
something in her basket.” After spending time with Alder McKinney, I whole-heartedly agree.
One of the first public meetings I attended when I came to Madison was a subcommittee meeting of the Madison
Common Council. Since I have several decades of police accountability work under my belt, I felt compelled to
offer myself as a resource to the committee. During the public comment section, I introduced myself and that I was
from St. Louis. That’s when one of the alders announced that she was also from St. Louis. Huh? What was her
story? I made it my business to find out.
Don’t let Barbara McKinney’s genteel demeanor fool you. Beneath that veneer is a spirit of dogged determination
rooted in her Southern upbringing and blended with life in the Show-Me State of Missouri.
When we met up, Alder McKinney was in full dress — or should I say full boots — for canvassing in the snow. The
alderwoman of the 1st Ward was in a heated race to retain her seat. And while we now know she beat her
opponent handily (winning 60 percent of the vote), McKinney was not taking anything for granted. She literally
knocked on her constituents’ doors every day of the campaign.