Before Congress, there were the streets Kweisi Mfume muses on his own atonement

October 15, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Kweisi Mfume used to run away from it. All of it. All of the litter and mess from his past that had nothing to do with his life now within the stately halls of Congress.

Dropping out of school. Shooting craps and swigging wine from a bottle on a street corner in West Baltimore. Fathering five sons, as he says, "before my time."

"I didn't think there was much inspiration there," says the Democratic congressman from Baltimore, sitting in his Capitol Hill office and reflecting on his past.

But then young people started coming up to him, telling him how they were trying to turn their lives around just as he had so adroitly turned his life around.

And he began to see, he says, that there was inspiration there.

He began to see that there was a lesson to be learned from his life, one that, in fact, is much like the message of tomorrow's Million Man March here in which Mr. Mfume will be participating and at which he is expected to speak.

The march for African-American men, spearheaded by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, is billed as "a day of atonement" for black men, a day to reflect on their responsibilities to their families and to their communities.

Some African-American organizations and leaders, including Mr. Mfume's fellow lawmakers, are not participating in the march because of Minister tory of in-cendiary rhetoric often perceived as hate-filled and anti-Semitic.

Maryland's other African-American member of Congress, Democrat Albert R. Wynn, has expressed only guarded support for the march and, although he will participate, has said he has "mixed feelings" about the event.

But Mr. Mfume, who as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1993 attempted to forge a "sacred covenant" with Minister Farrakhan, only to be overruled by caucus members who wanted no such relationship with the black separatist, has wholeheartedly embraced the event.

In Mr. Mfume's words, "The message has overtaken the messenger on this march."

It is a message Mr. Mfume relates to in a personal and emotional way: "The first lesson is it doesn't matter how you start in life, but it does matter how you finish," he says.

"It's not where you have been that should take center stage. It's where it is you're going from this point on.

"I learned that the hard way."

Ragged beginnings

Mr. Mfume, 46, says his own ragged start made him acutely aware of the pressures and temptations that young men face today, especially those growing up in poverty or in broken homes.

For his part, the boy who grew up in West Baltimore as Frizzell Gray -- he would later adopt the Swahili name that means "conquering son of kings" -- succumbed to those lures at age 16 after his mother died of cancer in his arms.

Aside from losing the anchor in his life, he would learn on the night of her death that his father, Clifton Gray, a truck driver who had never treated him very well, was not his birth father.

His biological father, it turned out, was a man he knew as a family friend.

The family split up, with Frizzell moving in with uncles and his three younger sisters going to live with their grandmother.

The young man dropped out of school, started working odd jobs and, angry and directionless, rebelled -- gambling, drinking, fighting, and, between the ages of 17 and 22, fathering five sons with four different women.

"I was running the street in gangs and on my way to hell in a handbasket," he says. "I can't put it any other way."

In those years, he says, he was sucked into the culture of the street "like quicksand that was fast and deep and overwhelming."

"If you are in the street when you are 17 or 18 years of age, regardless of what color you are, if you're in the street, there's always the lure of the street, the temptations of the street and the pressure of the street that says you have to, not only adjust to your environment, you have to conquer it," says Mr. Mfume.

"You've got to take on all the wrong aspects of it so you gain the respect of your peers. You get a twisted sense of reality."

'Time to own up'

He believes this week's march in Washington tells African-American males "it is time to own up to some of that."

It is time to abandon the "mental shackles," he says, that tell black men they should be tough and angry and "macho, macho, macho" all the time and should not have feelings or be caring, nurturing or responsible.

"A real man is someone who takes care of his children, who takes care of his family, who contributes to the development of other young people -- and who gives," he says.

In his case, he owned up to his responsibilities and started putting his life back together at age 22, finally fed up with his life and feeling that he was doing a disservice to both his religious beliefs and his mother's memory.

He says that the only thing that saved him, in fact, was the bedrock values his mother instilled in him at an early age.

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