NAACP President Kweisi Mfume showed uncommon wisdom in declining to run for mayor of Baltimore. Now those of us concerned about the future of the nearly century-old civil rights organization can heave a sigh of relief.
Mfume's leadership is needed more in the NAACP than as mayor Baltimore. Any of the politicians who have expressed an interest in running for mayor can lead Baltimore. The NAACP requires special leadership -- as Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, who preceded Mfume at the helm of the organization, proved.
Under Chavis Muhammad, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had debt and scandal. Under Mfume, it has had integrity and prosperity. And, as Mfume indicated last Sunday, there is still work that needs to be done.
Mfume mentioned specifically affirmative action, a controversial issue he can address persuasively with his oratorical gift of being forceful and eloquent without being demagogic.
Conservatives want to undo all affirmative action programs and throw out the proverbial baby with the proverbial bath water. Liberals don't want to admit the baby is dirty, much less needs a bath. Mfume is on the liberal side of the affirmative action question, but his career as a Baltimore city councilman from the 4th District and U.S. congressman from Maryland's 7th District showed that he will listen to opposing arguments and learn from them.
In the 1980s, Mfume and 2nd District Councilman Clarence Du Burns had a nasty exchange on the council floor. Mfume favored a resolution that, as a protest against apartheid, would have banned a South African theater troupe from performing in Baltimore. Burns questioned the wisdom of the resolution, erroneously calling the theater troupe a dance company. Mfume corrected Burns, and not in very friendly tones.
"You haven't had a bill passed since you got on this council!" Burns shot back. "If Du Burns had proposed this resolution, it would have passed."
Not long afterward, Mfume was seen on the council floor chatting amicably with Burns. Mfume had swallowed his pride and was learning from one of Baltimore's master politicians.
In the same decade, an off-duty city police officer shot and paralyzed a teen-age boy named Jawan McGee. Community activists demanded that Commissioner Donald Pomerleau come to a forum and face the heat. Pomerleau sent Bishop Robinson, future commissioner, then a colonel, in his place. Robinson took the heat, which rose to volcanic proportions.
"Boy, whatever they're paying this guy, it's not enough," I said from my seat.
The meeting took place in Mfume's district. He came in later, only to have one activist light into him with a fury other attendees had reserved for Robinson. When we discussed that night days later, Mfume said he was upset because the things the guy accused him of simply weren't true. I nodded sympathetically, but then added my own observation.
"You know, you got off easy," I said. "What you got was nothing compared to what Bishop Robinson got."
"Yeah," he said, forgetting his own problems for the moment as we discussed Robinson's dilemma. But within months, Mfume was seen shaking hands with the activist who had lighted into him that night.
"Boy," I mused, "there's a guy willing to let bygones be bygones."
Just the type of guy the NAACP needs now. Americans need a black leader who can cogently explain why affirmative action is still needed and who has the courage to tell conservatives that in many ways they have been demagogic and downright misleading on the subject. But we also need someone who is at least willing to listen to affirmative action's critics and make a judgment based on the criticisms.
Perhaps most important, Mfume can explain to white Americans -- in ways Chavis Muhammad never could -- how vital the NAACP has been to America's history. Not that he should have to, of course. That is a history we should all be familiar with -- the NAACP's numerous court fights against school segregation, for voting rights and the little-known case that actually helped Martin Luther King Jr. and the black citizens of Montgomery, Ala., win that famous bus boycott. Without the NAACP's legal efforts to fight racism, race war might have become a horrifying reality.
Without Mfume leading today's NAACP, a less vibrant organization would be a certainty.
Pub Date: 12/13/98