Mfume's exodus from a dead-end destiny

September 01, 1996|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,sun staff

"No Free Ride," by Kweisi Mfume (with Ron Stodghill II). Ballentine. 373 pages. $25.

From his election to Congress in 1986 to his chairing the influential Congressional Black Caucus to his recent appointment as the head of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume over the last decade has established himself as one of this nation's top African-American leaders. That this polished politician and well-known orator rose to such esteem after life as a street thug is illustrated in "No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets to the Mainstream."

Written with Business Week reporter Ron Stodghill II, this is the latest of the "from street-life-to-success" book offerings dealing with African-American subjects. Mfume is a widely known figure and deserves credit for allowing readers an inside probe into a youth destined for failure.

Mfume's story is little known outside the Baltimore area. Born Frizzel Gray, he grew up in the fairly tranquil area of Turners Station. But his family's being abandoned by an abusive stepfather prompted a move to West Baltimore where the 12-year-old boy known as Pee Wee - despite an overprotective mother - was quickly absorbed by the nonstop nightlife along the then-famous Pennsylvania Avenue.

By 14, Mfume and his buddies were hanging out on street corners, getting ripped on cheap wine. At that same age Mfume was introduced to sex by three McCulloh Street prostitutes.

And that was the light stuff. He was arrested for his role in the burning of a car that belonged to a man who often extended his struggling mother credit. Later he was arrested for firing a couple of shots into the home of his stepfather. By the time he was 22, the then Frizzel Gray had fathered five boys with four different women - all in less than a span of two years. "I gave new meaning to the phrase 'sowing wild oats,' " Mfume writes.

It's a long way from the respected person he is today. And while TTC many drown when faced with a similar predicament, Mfume cites two examples of why he succeeded.

The first was a encounter with Parren Mitchell, a member of the most influential black political family and at the time a candidate for Congress. Young Pee Wee first curses Mitchell, and later flashes a gun at the politician. Mitchell laughs off the young man, hands him a card and urges him to call. Pee Wee does.

The second incident occurred during a corner dice game, when Mfume claims to have seen a vision of his deceased mother. It was an incident that he describes as bringing him "a perfect peace I have never known ... I had been completely transformed."

This is where the book is at its best - taking us to the transformation of a man who would later change his name because Frizzel Gray "had lived and died."

While the final four chapters often come across as self-serving as they describe Mfume's work in Washington, "No Free Ride" is still a story that could provide inspiration for young people who find themselves facing the same overwhelming obstacles in life.

Jerry Bembry, a Sun sports writer, has covered courts, polic and government in his 11 years at the paper.

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