Mfume embarks on 'journey for change' NAACP president takes office in D.C.

February 21, 1996|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Flanked by President Clinton, Kweisi Mfume was inaugurated as NAACP president yesterday and pledged to help create "hope, new opportunity, new dignity, a new horizon, a new chance for each and every American."

"I ask all who care about what's fair and decent in this nation to join me under this banner to begin that journey for change," Mr. Mfume told a standing-room crowd of 300 guests at the U.S. Justice Department.

In a two-hour ceremony punctuated by prayer, song and laughter, Mr. Mfume also appealed for help in retiring the NAACP's $3.2 million debt. "Dollars are needed immediately," he said.

Mr. Mfume, 47, who was the NAACP board's surprise choice in December, is the eighth person to head the 87-year-old civil rights group, which is based in Baltimore.

He resigned his congressional seat in Maryland's 7th District on Sunday to assume the $200,000-a-year job of revitalizing an organization weakened by power struggles and financial mismanagement.

Mr. Mfume said the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chose the Justice Department for the swearing-in to symbolize the group's history of demanding "equal justice and equal treatment before the law." He said the NAACP paid for the ceremony.

For the Clinton administration, it was a chance to show the flag in an election year. Black voter turnout is traditionally vital to Democratic candidates. Vice President Al Gore, Attorney General Janet Reno and Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary also attended.

Mr. Clinton told the audience, including both U.S. senators from Maryland, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Coretta Scott King and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., that Mr. Mfume made a "wise choice" in accepting the NAACP post.

"When Kweisi called me to tell me he was going to take this job, in the words of an old country song, I didn't know whether to kill myself or go bowling," Mr. Clinton joked. "I had become almost emotionally dependent upon him being in the Congress."

He called the NAACP leader "a uniquely gifted man with a personal history that shimmers with the promise of America and the possibility of personal renewal and the virtue of never giving up on yourself."

Mr. Mfume was a high school dropout who fathered five sons out of wedlock before going back to school, achieving success as a radio host and embarking on a political career.

Yesterday he made a bow to two men who helped him -- Jim Sears, former general manager of WEBB-FM radio in Baltimore, and Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise magazine -- and to his sons. Four of them attended the inauguration. He said the fifth was taking an exam.

He said afterward that it was emotional "to have my children here after 16 1/2 years in public life. It was my own generational change I had to embrace."

He stressed the need for generational change at the NAACP, which is dominated by aging leaders with roots in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and '60s.

"We must make room for the young," he said.

Black youth played a significant role in the program. Jason Hines, a senior at Morgan State University (Mr. Mfume's alma mater), was master of ceremonies. The Morgan choir sang. Jamie Smith, a Baltimore School for the Arts student and NAACP youth activist, spoke. Ayinde Jean-Baptiste, a Chicago high school freshman, offered a rousing recitation of Rudyard Kipling's poem "If."

Mashica Hunt, 18, a Morgan freshman, predicted that Mr. Mfume would get a "great response" from young African-Americans. "They need to reach out to us more so we can have more mentors and role models."

Mr. Mfume said he would build coalitions across racial and religious lines, reject extremes of both right and left, and accent the need for individual responsibility.

"If there is anything we have learned from the last 30 years, it is that the poor must not be maintained, they must be transformed," he said.

NAACP Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams, who set the stage for Mr. Mfume's presidency by dethroning the old guard on the organization's board, said she had handed him a "clean slate upon which to build."

Three years ago, Mr. Jackson was a candidate to head the NAACP, but he withdrew in the face of board bickering. The Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. was picked instead. The ensuing years of turmoil included Dr. Chavis' firing in 1994 and Mrs. Evers-Williams' defeat of Chairman William F. Gibson a year ago.

"You have to get the hogs out of the creek to have drinking water, and Myrlie Evers has done a good job of getting the hogs out of the creek," Mr. Jackson said.

Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, said he looked forward to working with Mr. Mfume. "We're putting a full team on the field at last for civil rights," he said.

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