NAACP finds new energy under Mfume's leadership

Members rave about the man who turned self, group around

Naacp 2000

July 14, 2000|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN STAFF

When Kweisi Mfume adopted a West African name 30 years ago, he chose Swahili words that evoked a warrior prince. Today, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People embrace him as their "conquering son of kings" - and for good reason.

Mfume, the president and chief executive officer of the NAACP, has overseen the revitalization of the venerable civil rights organization. The "new" NAACP is a financially sound organization, a historic institution energized by young faces, an association updating its civil rights agenda for the 21st century.

From the chairman of the board to a 15-year-old activist, NAACP conventioneers and others cite Mfume's dynamic personality, political acumen and compassionate leadership style in the turnabout in the country's oldest civil rights organization, which had been beset by debt, scandal and mismanagement.

But the talk isn't only about his stewardship during the past 4 1/2 years.

NAACP members rave about the Baltimore native's gentle charm and fiery spirit. They appreciate his personal struggle, a life-transforming journey from a streetwise punk named Frizzell Gray to the charismatic Congressional Black Caucus chairman with the hard-to-pronounce name. They clamor for photographs with him and enjoy his e-mail.

"He's done wonderfully. We like him. We want him to stay," said Julian Bond, the eloquent civil rights veteran and former Georgia legislator who is now chairman of the NAACP board.

Mfume's supporters - and they are many -- shudder at the thought that he might not be their president after his contract expires next February.

"I don't think anybody is looking for him to go anywhere," said LaKeitha J. Daniels, a 20-year-old NAACP board member from Miami. "He has brought us so much stability."

Nowhere was Mfume more on display than here this week at the organization's annual convention. Thousands of delegates from across the country arrived for the weeklong celebrations, workshops, awards ceremonies and closed-door business meetings.

Mfume, 51, seemed to be everywhere.

He hosted the president and first lady and the three candidates vying for the White House when they came to address members. He greeted prize-winning teen artists at a hotel fete and recruited party-goers at a downtown nightclub. He had breakfast with Bank of America executives and praised their commitment to minority lending, days after he warned that the banking industry would be the next NAACP boycott target.

And, he made time to do a little one-on-one counseling. At a luncheon for labor leaders, Mfume stepped down from a dais crowded with prominent business people to confer with Daniels and Kimberly Bills, two college students on the NAACP board.

Mfume encouraged the women to consider the breadth of experience in the room, the potential allies in the future. Then he returned to the dais. "I thought the moment was pregnant with opportunity," Mfume said later.

"He shows us a lot of attention," said Bills, 20, of Baltimore, referring to the board's seven youth members. "He knows how to serve his constituents and we are his constituents."

"He's always approachable," added Daniels, who starts Tulane University Law School this fall. "We e-mail each other back and forth. He has made it so we're not afraid to tell him exactly what we think."

When former board Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams and others persuaded Mfume to leave his secure seat in Congress for NAACP headquarters in Seton Business Park, the organization had been leaderless for 15 months.

Mfume reorganized the national staff. He pursued corporate donations to retire the NAACP debt, which Williams had reduced to $3.2 million. He crisscrossed the country, visiting local branches. He spearheaded a membership dues increase, money the national relies on.

He selected his targets to revitalize the group's civil rights agenda - the dearth of African Americans in television programming, the Confederate battle flag's 38-year perch on the South Carolina Statehouse, the hotel industry's treatment of black guests, the costs of gun violence.

With the support of the board led now by Bond - who said members refer to him and Mfume as "the twin towers" - Mfume's strategy appears to have paid off.

Bond said Mfume quickly grasped the culture of this diverse group, whose 1,700 branches rely mainly on volunteers. At formal occasions, for example, organ music underscores Mfume's speeches, as is customary in black churches during a sermon.

"Kweisi can relate to people from Yale to jail, eye to eye, toe to toe, with respect," said Robert Ingram, a Baltimore public relations executive who has followed Mfume's career since his days on the Baltimore City Council.

"That's a rare individual. All too often brothers like him in suits aren't respected by some in the (African American) community who haven't fared so well," Ingram said.

Mfume dines with celebrities. His calls to the White House get returned. But, if his phone rings late at night, he is likely to answer it.

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