Let's leave Mfume in peace to make tough choice between city and NAACP

May 09, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

"IT SOUNDS like you came this close to announcing," a television reporter said to Kweisi Mfume Wednesday afternoon as he walked to the rear of Westminster Hall in downtown Baltimore, where he had just received the University System of Maryland's Frederick Douglass Award.

"That only counts in horseshoes," a smiling Mfume answered, the Douglass medal hanging from a black and yellow ribbon still dangling from his neck.

The television crews weren't there to cover the ceremony. (Did they show up for the ones honoring former Congressman Parren Mitchell, historian Benjamin Quarles and Baltimore Afro-American sportswriter Sam Lacy?) They were there to hear Mfume announce he was running for mayor. It was a pleasure to see Mfume disappoint them.

The NAACP leader and possible mayoral candidate informed the assembled media that he still hasn't made up his mind about entering the race. Although he did make some comments indicating he might run, he made a few that hinted it's also possible he might stay at the helm of the civil rights organization.

"I've never run from a fight," Mfume said in his speech after he accepted the award. "And I pray to God I never run from a challenge." A few moments before, Mfume had tantalized the media with this quote: "I've made some mistakes in my life. I'm going to make a few more before I die. I'm not a perfect person. This is not a perfect nation. But God still calls us to a perfect mission."

As mayor of Baltimore, Mfume would have more than his share of challenges. And was he subtly wondering out loud if leaving the NAACP to assume the reins of leadership in Charm City would be a mistake?

Here's something the media and the "draft Mfume" folks might want to consider: Leave the man alone. He's pondering what may be the most difficult decision of his life, one not unlike the choice Douglass made when he donned a sailor's uniform, boarded a train and headed north into freedom and fame. Folks act as if deciding to leave the nation's oldest, most prestigious and still very much-needed civil rights organization to become mayor of Baltimore is an obvious choice, a no-brainer. But for every hint Mfume gave that he might run, he left just as many that he might not.

"This country now has a national scourge of insensitivity, intolerance and hate," Mfume told the gathering. "For some, tolerance has become a dirty word. Jim Crow Sr. is dead, but Jim Crow Jr. continues to walk among us."

That sounds like a compelling reason for Mfume to stay on board at the NAACP. But Mfume admits that the mayor's job intrigues him.

"I consider it a challenge," he said at the post-ceremony luncheon. "It's a welcome challenge. I don't know how many people grow up poor in a city and be told you're not going to amount to anything and 50 years after your birth be considered for mayor. I'd be lying if I said [being mayor] didn't appeal to me. You get a chance to make a difference."

But he's hesitant to leave the NAACP. And, he says, the feeling's mutual.

"The association doesn't want me to leave," Mfume said. "It's a yin and yang situation."

The NAACP knows an excellent leader when it sees one. Mfume repeated some long-cherished NAACP values during his speech.

"I think racism and anti-Semitism are wrong," he said. "I believe black bigotry is just as bad as white bigotry."

Those are words we all need to hear, especially those blacks who insist they can't possibly be bigoted. Ironically, they're some of the same ones for whom Jew-baiting has become all but a second job. Mfume has long been known as a healer and a conciliator. But, when he has to, Mfume won't hesitate to tell folks what they don't want to hear, as he did when he advised an NAACP chapter that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has a right to express his opinions.

Mfume is the perfect leader for the NAACP in today's racial climate, where blacks and whites feel all the bigotry is on the other side. Mfume knows there's enough to go around, that ending all forms of bigotry is everybody's business and, most importantly, won't resort to scapegoating individuals or groups for the lingering hatred afoot in the land.

So whether it be leading the NAACP or leading Baltimore, let's leave Mfume to make that decision in relative peace. What makes the situation so hard for Mfume is that he's considering two jobs, both of which he's eminently qualified for, but can take only one. He'll make the decision in his own good time. When it's done, he'll call us. We won't have to call him.

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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