READ THE NEWS stories and you figure this Kweisi Mfume fella is a real scoundrel, one who would criticize television networks for not having enough minorities on the air while trying to cut a back-door deal for himself.
It smacks of a tactic the good Rev. Jesse Jackson might try, but there's a world of difference between Jackson and Mfume. Jackson's the type who makes you feel you have to hide your good silverware - and your daughter - when he comes a-visitin'. Mfume has been a bridge-builder ever since his days as a city councilman here in Baltimore and performed equally well as a member of Congress and as president of the NAACP.
Mfume wears many hats. His best might be as host of WBAL-TV's The Bottom Line. Mfume has been doing the show for years. He did not - as some stories slyly implied - just get into the business in the last couple of weeks.
But viewers of his show have probably been wondering for a while now just why Mfume hasn't tried to get The Bottom Line syndicated nationally. The hourlong talk fest is informative, its host intellectual and erudite. In short, it's the kind of show that network executives don't want right about now. They continue to serve up idiotic fare. Viewers continue to watch it.
So don't look for The Bottom Line to be syndicated nationally. Don't look for Mfume in any other talk show role either, despite his qualifications. Just look for him to do what he's been doing for some time: nudging the networks to abandon the vision of a lily-white America that their programming reflects.
But he's been criticized even for this. In The Sun of Aug. 15, op-ed page writer Jesse Lee Peterson wrote glowingly of the NAACP's successful struggles against Jim Crow and segregation.
"Nowadays the NAACP's caliber of work pales in comparison with its glorious past," Peterson wrote. "America's increasing equality and opportunity relegate the NAACP to complaining that there are no black characters on the television show Friends."
Written like a gent who's completely forgotten that one of those "successful struggles" the NAACP waged was getting better roles for blacks in television and movies and the elimination of the more ludicrous stereotypes. The NAACP booklet "Out of Focus, Out of Sync" gives a brief history of that struggle.
It started in 1915, when the NAACP led nationwide protests against D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, that paean to the hooded terrorists in the Ku Klux Klan that depicted blacks as a lazy, conniving, corrupt, criminal race whose menfolk constantly lusted after white lasses.
The NAACP had less criticism for 1939's Gone With The Wind. (Given my druthers, I'd take Birth of a Nation over Gone With The Wind any day. At least Griffith's film had the blessing of silence.)
In the early 1940s, NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White got Hollywood moguls to form an ad hoc committee that would monitor the images of blacks in movies.
So Mfume is not veering from the tradition of the NAACP. He's upholding it. This is 2001, not the 1950s or the early 1960s. Then, lily-white TV was all the rage. Look at shows from that era on the cable channels TV Land or Nickelodeon, and the only black folks you see are maids or butlers. Asian actors were few and far between, Hispanic actors might be seen on a regular basis - playing Native Americans, who were almost completely whited out of existence.
Hollywood big shots of those years might be forgiven. They saw so few people of color that they truly believed they lived in a white country. The ones running the show today can make no excuses. They probably can't leave their studios without running into a Latino, not with Los Angeles' Hispanic population. Blacks have been making their presence felt for years. The number of East Indians is growing, and Americans who go to any large city and don't see a fair number of Asians should think something is terribly wrong.
Film and television honchos have a blind spot: They refuse to see people of color. Last month I bought the video Red Ball Express. It starred Jeff Chandler and Sidney Poitier in one of his early Hollywood roles.
The Red Ball Express was a World War II operation in which hundreds of truck drivers kept Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army supplied with the gasoline, ammunition and food it needed to drive into Germany. Seventy-five percent of the drivers were black, but don't look for any acknowledgment of that in this movie. Its focus is on Chandler and another white actor in a "you-killed-my-brother" kind of plot.
That film came out in 1952. Eighteen years later, you didn't hear any mention of the Red Ball Express in the movie Patton, either. The guys in the operation didn't make it into Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, either. That was in 1997.
Someone needs to drop-kick those Hollywood folks into the 21st century. Thank God Mfume has "relegated" himself to do it.