Mfume asks potential big NAACP donors to hold off Incoming president wants to give 'the masses' a chance to help group

January 11, 1996|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

Notice from Rep. Kweisi Mfume to wealthy donors: If you're thinking about wiping out the NAACP's $3.2 million debt with the stroke of a pen -- wait.

Mr. Mfume, who will take command of the civil rights group next month, said yesterday that he has asked about a dozen athletes, entertainers and entrepreneurs to "watch the efforts of the organization and myself to systematically reduce the debt" before acting.

Why not seek the big bucks right away?

"It would deny the masses of people to feel the opportunity to be part of saving the organization, retiring its debt and creating a new NAACP," Mr. Mfume said at a Sun luncheon honoring him as the newspaper's 1995 Marylander of the Year.

Mr. Mfume added in an interview that he had told potential major donors (none of whom he would name): "I'm not calling to ask you to write a check. I'm calling to ask you to believe again in this organization, to believe in the energy I want to bring to it."

He said he was confident from their responses that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has weathered two years of financial distress and internal upheaval, would receive their enthusiastic support.

The 47-year-old Baltimore congressman will leave his 7th District seat in mid-February to become president and chief executive officer of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group, which has its headquarters in Northwest Baltimore's Seton Business Park.

Mr. Mfume said yesterday that he expects to be inaugurated in a "frugal" ceremony, probably at the Justice Department in Washington.

"This is not the time for a grand inaugural ball," he said. "I've nixed that idea already."

Mr. Mfume reiterated that "there are going to be changes at headquarters and in the field," maybe including staff cuts. As the NAACP's debt increased, the group's national staff has been cut by more than half to its present level of 50.

"This organization is going to take six months to hunker down and get its act in order," he said.

Mr. Mfume said the NAACP's main efforts over the next five years would be to protect and defend civil liberties; to work with black youth and instill the values of "appreciation for work, respect for life and respect for elders," and to educate and register voters nationwide.

He said the NAACP would reject separatism and build coalitions because "I believe that's the only thing that works. Focusing on differences has never produced anything significant in our country."

He acknowledged black separatist Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam as a leader, but said: "I don't think he's going to convert me nor am I going to convert him."

The congressman's appointment was ratified last month by the 64-member NAACP board after a seven-month search to replace the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr.

Dr. Chavis was fired in 1994 after he was found to have secretly committed NAACP funds to settle a sexual harassment claim.

Mr. Mfume was recruited by A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., a retired federal appeals judge, who was co-chair of the search committee. Mr. Mfume's candidacy was a closely held secret that not even the full search committee knew about until the night before the Dec. 9 board meeting.

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