A passionate voice

December 01, 2004

HE'S NOT ILL. He doesn't have a job offer with a six-figure salary. He says he's not preparing to run for political office, and, Kweisi Mfume insists, he and NAACP board chairman Julian Bond have a good working relationship despite reports to the contrary. That all makes Mr. Mfume's decision to end his nine-year tenure as president of the nation's oldest civil rights group the more puzzling. It sounds like an unexpected exit strategy for a "conquering son of kings," the translation of his adopted West African name, who has spent the past two decades in positions of political promise and power.

But when Mr. Mfume took the NAACP job in 1996, the organization's finances were a mess, its membership was waning and its mission a muddle. He has brought financial stability to the NAACP and elevated its public profile - and his own. Mr. Mfume may indeed want a break from the demanding pace of the job. It's also as likely to be true that his time, his purpose at the NAACP are over.

Baltimore has a stake in the futures of Mr. Mfume and the 95-year-old NAACP. The NAACP is based here. Mr. Mfume, a former Baltimore radio talk-show host and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, is a native son and one of Maryland's most accomplished black leaders.

When Mr. Mfume gave up his seat in Congress to take over the helm of the NAACP, the match was a coup for both. Mr. Mfume brought a youthful energy, astute political skills and artful eloquence to a venerable group in desperate need of new blood, tough management and a more relevant mission. The job provided Mr. Mfume with an opportunity to be a chief executive officer of a 500,000-member organization with a great history and the potential for greater accomplishments in the areas of civil rights and equal opportunity.

Mr. Mfume and Mr. Bond did bring the group into the 21st century, but not without some cost and controversy. The volunteer organization is leaner and financially secure, but its membership estimate remains virtually unchanged despite Mr. Mfume's claim of a 75 percent increase in college chapters. Sharp, intemperate criticism hurled at President Bush by Mr. Mfume and Mr. Bond left the organization on the outs with a White House that was recruiting more blacks to the Republican Party.

The next NAACP president faces formidable challenges, with the Bush administration's opposition to affirmative action, a Republican-controlled Congress and a pending IRS investigation of the group's tax-exempt status. But that only reinforces the need for a forceful, passionate voice on issues of importance to people of color. Mr. Mfume has been that voice in the past. No doubt the occasion for him to speak out will present itself again.

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