Mfume has come far. And he will go farther. Once a timid youngster in segregated Dundalk, he has grown into a gifted speaker, savvy politician and fiery leader.

December 06, 1998|By Mike Adams

I'M NOT surprised that Kweisi Mfume surfaced quickly as a possible candidate for mayor of Baltimore. Mfume is a gifted orator who possesses political know-how and the ability to inspire people.

I didn't realize how good Mfume is at working a crowd until I attended a get-out-the-vote rally in Northwest Baltimore just before the gubernatorial election. Some of the state's top Democrats, including Parris N. Glendening, William Donald Schaefer and J. Joseph Curran Jr., were there, but it was Mfume who energized the crowd. He strolled onstage at the Forum, donned a NAACP cap, then quickly took it from his head.

"I'm taking off my NAACP cap tonight, and I'm speaking as Kweisi Mfume, a private citizen and a Democrat," said Mfume, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, officially a nonpartisan organization.

Before Mfume's arrival, people had milled about listlessly, but they were mesmerized when he began to speak. With the zeal of an evangelical preacher, he professed his love of the Democratic Party and argued that civil rights advances would be imperiled by a Glendening defeat.

I've been a journalist for more than 25 years, but I've never seen anyone with more fire in the belly than Mfume. During the early 1980s, I covered politics for a newspaper in another state and wound up at a lot of fund-raisers and rubber-chicken events where political hot air was blown. I covered speeches by Jimmy Carter, George Bush, Joseph R. Biden Jr., Pete DuPont, Edward M. Kennedy, Barry Goldwater and plenty others I've forgotten. But Mfume's get-out-the-vote speech was the most impassioned witnessed at a political event.

Mfume's voice boomed as he praised Glendening as a champion of civil rights and painted his Republican opponent, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, as an ultraconservative threat. He called for a heavy black-voter turnout on Election Day to save affirmative action, women's rights and all the liberal causes that Democrats stand for.

As Mfume spoke, I turned to his top aide, Carl Swann, and said, "You can't tell me that he doesn't have another campaign in him. He's going to run for something, isn't he?"

Mfume himself made clear yesterday that that "something" isn't the current mayoral race. But who knows? That day in November, Carl did not respond to my question, but his smile and the sparkle in his eye was answer enough.

I just turned 50, and I've known Carl for many years. We grew up in Turners Station, Dundalk's black ghetto. Mfume also lived in Turners Station, and he and Carl have been friends since childhood. Carl worked at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point shipyard until Mfume tapped him to work as an aide after Mfume was elected to Congress. He has been with Mfume ever since.

"I guess you could call me a fly on the wall," Carl said. "I've been close to a lot of the action with Kweisi. One time, the president called my house when he couldn't find Kweisi. My wife said, 'Carl, the president is on the phone.' I said, 'Right,' and it turned out to really be the president."

Those who have read Mfume's biography are aware of the obstacles he has overcome. I'm more acutely aware because, though we are not personal friends, I remember Mfume from junior high school when his name was Frizzell Gray. In 1961, we were both students in the same 7th-grade homeroom at Sollers Point High.

And we share a common history of facing racism.

Back then, the Baltimore County school system was segregated. Our books were outdated hand-me-downs from the white schools. And unlike the white county schools, Sollers was allowed to have only two sports - track and basketball.

If you wanted an ice cream cone or a hamburger, you had to go to Dundalk or a nearby shopping center in a white neighborhood. But you could not sit in the restaurant and eat. The Turners Station library had two shelves of books, while the whites in Dundalk had a library with many books - but we could not go there. The Dundalk YMCA had a swimming pool and recreational facilities. Blacks had none.

Every day, we were confronted with the symbols of inferiority that white society heaped on us. A few lucky people managed to overcome them, but many more succumbed to alcoholism, drug abuse, crime or another of the many maladies that afflict the black community.

The Frizzell Gray I remember was a tiny kid with a weak, squeaky voice who was so painfully shy and self-conscious that he was on the verge of tears whenever he had to speak before the class.

In those days, teachers could paddle you for misbehaving. They had other ways to keep you in line. Our teacher used humiliation PTC as a control tactic. She divided the class into three sections - Sugar Hill, Sandtown and Gut Bucket. The students with the best grades and behavior sat near the teacher's desk in Sugar Hill. The so-so kids sat behind them in Sandtown. The worst sat at the back of the class in Gut Bucket.

I can't remember where Mfume sat, but I don't seem to place him in the Sugar Hill gang. And I don't remember him back in Gut Bucket, where I spent most of my time being punished for bad behavior.

I can't imagine two people more different than Mfume and Kurt L. Schmoke, who announced last week that he won't run next year for a fourth term as mayor of Baltimore. Schmoke's leadership has been quiet and cerebral. Mfume, had he run, would have brought activism and charisma to City Hall.

Mfume's life has been amazing, and the chapters continue to unfold. He has come from Turners Station and the streets of Baltimore to become a city councilman, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus and the president of the NAACP. Through it all, he has never forgotten his roots or lost his social consciousness. He still marches to the tune that "none of us are free as long as one of us is chained."

That's an inspiring political anthem, indeed.

Mike Adams is the editor of Perspective.

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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