A quiet but effective first year Leader: Kweisi Mfume spent much of his first year as NAACP president settling debts. Now he's ready for activism.

February 12, 1997|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

In his first year on the job, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume has worked to vanquish a $3.2 million debt, modernize a creaky but proud institution, restore a good name tarnished by mismanagement and scandal, and squeeze in a little civil rights work.

The 48-year-old former congressman from Baltimore has won high marks -- amid some grumbling -- from NAACP activists. But some analysts outside the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People say the 88-year-old organization is missing in action on major battles.

Now for the hard part.

His honeymoon ending, Mfume must show this year that a revived NAACP can regain its place as the nation's premier civil rights group, activists and analysts say. Mfume says the NAACP is up to the task.

"This year is different. You're going to see legislative thrusts that are NAACP initiatives. I won't say a 'Contract with America,' but it will be something that defines us, separate and apart, on several major issues," Mfume said in an interview at NAACP headquarters in Northwest Baltimore.

"We may be more active than people will want," he said. "Last year was a very unusual year: get to know the organization, learn the history, know all the people, understand the operation, raise money, clear up the debt, put in controls, establish a new mission. It left little time for anything except to react when situations came up."

Mfume is accustomed to a higher profile than he assumed in 1996. The NAACP hired him in part because he achieved national stature as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (1992-1994). He is the telegenic host of a Saturday morning public-affairs program on WBAL-TV. His autobiography, "No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets to the Mainstream," published last year, is due out in paperback in June.

He says he won't hesitate to make use of the NAACP presidency's "bully pulpit," even though some NAACP rank and file were displeased when he called classroom use of "ebonics" a "cruel joke" on black students or when he chided the Maryland NAACP for a planned protest against a school visit by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

"I am not somebody who sticks my hand up in the air to see which way the wind is blowing," he said. "If anybody thinks on major issues that it is the role of the president to go check what all the branches feel about an issue before rendering an opinion, then that's not going to happen with me. They've just got the wrong person if that's the case."

Mfume, who will address the NAACP annual meeting in New York on Saturday, almost a year after he took the $200,000-a-year job, outlined plans for this year:

Focus NAACP efforts on five broad areas: civil rights enforcement, voter empowerment, educational excellence, economic development and youth recruitment.

Increase the size of the depleted national staff by half. He expects to hire 18 to 20 employees to work on political mobilization, litigation, education, health, membership and servicing the NAACP's 1,700 branches.

Begin a five-year drive to build a $50 million endowment. He said zTC the NAACP would put $500,000 into the fund from a $2 million surplus accrued in austere 1996. He said the Prince Hall Masons of Maryland have already pledged $150,000.

Double the NAACP's number of youth and college chapters to 140 and start a "street outreach ministry," with a $100,000 grant from the Steven Spielberg Foundation.

Mfume said that under his leadership the NAACP would issue report cards on members of Congress and possibly state legislators; negotiate with Wall Street to provide capital for to black-owned "microenterprise"; revive its dormant magazine, the Crisis, as a center of black thought, and venture into selected communities to support grass-roots action.

Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland College Park political scientist, said Mfume must quickly show that the NAACP can use both quiet diplomacy and mass demonstrations to sway policy on issues such as welfare reform and affirmative action in Washington and state capitals.

Walters said Mfume was too moderate last year.

In November, when Texaco Inc. was under fire for discriminatory, tape-recorded remarks made by top executives, Mfume gave the company 30 days to devise a diversity plan or face a stock-divestiture campaign. The same day, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson called for an immediate boycott. When Texaco unveiled its plan about a month later, Jackson got most of the credit.

"We don't need another Urban League," said Walters, referring to the New York-based civil rights group known for its strong corporate ties. "We need an organization that can do what Jesse has been doing -- mobilize people, bring pressure to bear, things the NAACP has always stood for."

'Principled moderate'

But Brian W. Jones, president of the Center for New Black Leadership, a conservative group, said Mfume has emerged as a "principled moderate" who "appeals to the vast middle of the black community and to mainstream America generally."

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