Kweisi Mfume (born 1948), elected president of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1996, was the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Devoted to the Civil Rights Movement, Mfume resigned from Congress because he believed that he could achieve more for civil rights in his work for the NAACP.
Former congressman Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore was one of the most prominent black politicians on Capitol Hill. Mfume, who grew up in a poor neighborhood and worked his way into the halls of power, was elected chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1993, just as the number of African American representatives in Congress began to swell to record highs. According to Ron Stodghill II and Richard S. Dunham in Business Week, Mfume, "the former Baltimore firebrand, represents a new generation of black leadership in Congress—a group of young pragmatists more concerned about creating economic opportunity than protest." Baltimore Sun reporter Susan Baer called Mfume an "up-from-the-bootstraps politician" who has become, "almost overnight, one of the nation's most visible and powerful African American lawmakers." He resigned his seat in congress to become president of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1996.
Mfume has overcome a rough and deprived childhood on the streets of Baltimore to exhibit all the eloquence, polish, and insider know-how of a seasoned politician. His personal history serves as a classic example of a man who made the concerted decision to improve his lot in life. From a gang member and father of five children by three different women in his late teens, he became first a local radio personality then an impassioned city councilman and congressional representative for the district where he himself grew up. Today he speaks not only for the disadvantaged in urban Baltimore, but also for inner city residents in all parts of the nation. Mfume is a liberal Democrat who has achieved considerable power and prestige, especially since the arrival in the White House of President Bill Clinton. Baer noted that the four-term congressman "has earned respect as a level-headed consensus-seeker" and is well-known for his "eloquence and widespread appeal."
Mfume was born Frizzell Gray in a working class neighborhood in Baltimore. He recalled in the Washington Post that he was so sickly as a youngster that his parents nicknamed him "Pee Wee." His stepfather worked as a truck driver, and his mother took odd jobs as she could find them, but the family was often desperately short of cash. Nevertheless, young Frizzell Gray was a good student who was protective of his three younger sisters. In his home, wrote a U.S. News and World Report correspondent, his parents emphasized "education and civil rights; Jack Kennedy and later Martin Luther King were family idols. Yet they had to watch the 1963 march on Washington on TV because the 40-mile trip cost too much. School was segregated, although the Supreme Court had outlawed such things. [Mfume] could never figure out why he passed three schools to get to his own. Still, school was fine—until his world caved in."
First Mfume's stepfather left the family. Then, when he was sixteen, his mother discovered she had cancer. She literally died in Mfume's arms quite suddenly one evening. He was devastated. Mfume told U.S. News and World Report: "My mother was and, even in death, probably still is the most important person in my life. After she died of cancer, things spun out of control."
Mfume quit school in his sophomore year and went to work full-time to help support his sisters. Financial troubles forced the siblings into different households. At times Mfume worked as many as three different jobs in a week—full-time in a bread factory and part-time in a local grocery and as a shoeshine boy on Sundays. The pace began to take a toll, especially since he saw so many of his peers enjoying themselves at high school dances and other social events not open to him. "After two or three years of that I just went kind of wild," he told the Washington Post."I went to hell, quite frankly. I just couldn't understand why everybody else had parents, had a house to go to and had dinner on the table when I didn't have any of those things. I couldn't understand why I was being punished."
Mfume began hanging out on the street corner with friends. "Not only did I run with all the worst people, I became the leader," he recalled in U.S. News and World Report."I was locked up a couple of times on suspicion of theft because I happened to be black and happened to be young. And before I knew it, I was a teenage parent, not once but twice, three times, four times, five times." Mfume did not marry the mothers of his children, but he has always taken responsibility for the boys, who are now adults.
The big change for Mfume came on a hot July night in the late 1960s. He had been loitering and drinking with his friends, when suddenly he began to feel strange. "People were standing around shooting craps and everything else, and something just came over me," he remembered in Business Week."I said, 'I can't live like this anymore.' And I walked away." Mfume spent the rest of the night in prayer, then proceeded to earn his high school equivalency and pursue a college degree. "I took a lot of grief from friends, but I never went back," he told the Washington Post.
In an effort to connect with his African heritage, Mfume adopted a new name early in the 1970s. His aunt traveled to Ghana and suggested the name when she returned. "Kweisi Mfume" is a phrase of Ibo derivation that translates as "conquering son of kings." It turned out to be an appropriate choice for someone who would one day conquer the power structure in the nation's capital. Washington Post contributor Kent Jenkins, Jr. wrote: "For Mfume, the new name was more than an affectation. It signaled an awakening of his social consciousness and an increasing interest in politics. Like many young African Americans, he was appalled by the continuing impact of racism in America. But Mfume decided to do something about it and quickly settled on a line of attack: He would go on the radio and talk about it."
In the early 1970s, most black Baltimoreans listened to WEBB radio, a station owned by none other than the "godfather of soul," James Brown. Mfume began his tenure with the station as an unpaid volunteer, then became news reader, and finally earned a spot as an announcer. Despite pleas from management, he refused to part with his new name. Nor would he conform to the station's low-key political profile. "What Mfume had to say was not what WEBB had bargained for," noted Jenkins. "He was supposed to read commercials and introduce R and B records. But before long he was playing protest songs by jazz artist Gil Scott-Heron, reading poems by Nikki Giovanni and conducting call-in political seminars. The audience was electrified."
Concurrently, Mfume earned a bachelor's degree with honors from Morgan State University in 1976. When that college opened a noncommercial radio station, Mfume was hired as program director. Finally he had found a congenial forum for a political talk show. According to Jenkins, Mfume "became one of the strongest voices in Baltimore's black community, slamming the Democratic clubhouse organizations that dominated city politics. He aimed his most blistering remarks at [then-Baltimore mayor] William Donald Schaefer…. accusing him of ignoring poor neighborhoods while lavishing money on downtown redevelopment." Mfume's growing popularity as a radio personality convinced him to try his hand at politics. In 1978 he ran for Baltimore City Council.
That decision marked the occasion for another change. A seasoned political advisor told Mfume not to expect success unless he changed his attire from dashikis and jewelry to conservative suits and ties. Mfume took the advice, and he won a seat on the city council in 1978 by a mere three votes. Jenkins wrote: "On the council, Mfume moderated his dress but not his political approach, raining rhetorical fire on the city's power structure. His attacks on Schaefer were particularly poisonou…. and the mayor's contempt for Mfume was legendary." The two men almost came to blows on several occasions.
Mfume looks back on those days now as a learning experience. Gradually he became aware that politics was a game of coalition-building and compromise, rather than confrontation. He learned the delicate art of negotiation and even eventually developed a congenial relationship with Schaefer. Mfume told Business Week of his former nemesis: "We could go to our graves battling each other, or we could get things done."
In 1986, a more temperate and polished Mfume announced his candidacy for the Seventh Congressional District, to replace retiring congressman Parren J. Mitchell. Mfume's opponents in the election tried to make an issue of his checkered past, reminding voters that the councilman had dropped out of high school and fathered illegitimate children. The strategy backfired when Mfume's sons stepped forward to praise their father and the candidate pointed to his degrees from Morgan State and the Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a master's degree in 1984. Mfume won the congressional seat with three times the vote of his next closest opponent and prepared to go to Congress in 1987. In the Washington Post, he recalled that many of his freshman colleagues on Capitol Hill were astounded that he had won with such an unusual name.
Jenkins wrote: "Since coming to Congress Mfume has followed a traditional path that belies his unorthodox roots." When he found himself on the House Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs, Mfume educated himself on banking issues and economics. When his district was reapportioned to include some more rural regions of Maryland he immersed himself in farming and zoning laws so as to be able to represent his new constituents. He also developed a presence in Congress by volunteering to preside over sessions when the Speaker of the House was not present—a job that requires an understanding of arcane procedures that date to previous centuries. Mfume told the Washington Post: "I wanted people to get used to me real quick because I didn't plan on leaving."
At the same time, Mfume established himself as a liberal who stood solidly on the platform of expanded federal aid to inner cities. He never let a week go by that he did not return to Baltimore to deal firsthand with his constituents—a vast majority of whom are city dwellers. "I keep coming back to these communities and the lessons I learned here because that's what got me where I am," he told the Washington Post."When I can't get anything moving in Washington I can always come back here…. Whatever I'm doing in Washington, if it doesn't matter here, it doesn't matter."
Over time Mfume became "a key player in shaping the debate and legislation aimed at curing the ills of the nation's inner cities," to quote Stodghill and Dunham. In his fourth term, Mfume had earned enough political clout to win the leadership of the Congressional Black Caucus, a body that has become increasingly important, now with 39 members in the House. An overwhelming majority of the Congressional Black Caucus members are Democratic, but Mfume has set a maverick tone for the group. Soon after his election as chairman, Mfume and the Caucus openly criticized president Clinton for withdrawing support for Justice Department nominee Lani Guinier. Later the Caucus presented a list of "non-negotiable" demands to the Clinton White House, most of them having to do with federal aid to cities and the poor. "Not too many brothers or sisters would say 'no' to the president," NAACP executive director Benjamin Chavis was quoted as saying in Emerge. Mfume told Business Week: "No longer are we going to be looked at as an addendum to the Democratic agenda. We are going to be taken seriously…. If that means killing an important piece of [leadership-backed] legislation, then that will be the case."
Such a strong position has assured Mfume the ear of President Clinton, as well as the respect of his fellow Caucus members. Observers note that Mfume's popularity in his congressional district is such that he can depend upon winning his seat regularly. Since that is the case, he might also be poised to earn the honor of Speaker of the House at some point in the future. Having learned through trial and error how to create coalitions and make politics work for his district, Mfume shows no sign of relinquishing his career. "I could just stand on the side and be a spectator," he told the Baltimore Sun. "But politics is not a spectator sport. And in Washington, it's a contact sport. And I don't play to tie, I try to play to win. But you can only win if you are in the game." He added: "I'm going to be a player in the Democratic Part…. if they don't run me out."
On February 20, 1996, Mfume resigned his seat in Congress to become the president of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He said that he could do more for civil rights than in Congress saying, "Given the polarization in the country, the levels of crime and hatred, given the despair that I see in the eyes of young people, I thought that I could do more at the NAACP." After one year of leadership, Mfume had erased the NAACP's $4.5 million debt. However, many question whether he has moved quickly enough to restore the legislative, spiritual, and moral integrity of a group that once embodied effective civil rights action. With the group's financial problems behind him, Mfume told members during a speech at the Park Plaza Hotel in April, 1997, that it is time to cement a new agenda for the group. He discussed a five-point plan that he said links today's challenges to an age-old quest for justice.
When the NAACP kicked off its six-day national convention on July 12, 1997 in Pittsburgh, Mfume said that his term as president had "gone by in the blink of an eye because the workload was so high and the challenges were so great and the possibilities were so unlimited. I'm a workaholic by nature, so the fact that all this kind of coincided together was good for me in the sense that it challenged me." Mfume will undoubtedly continue to spiritually renew his organization with his charisma and determination.
Baltimore Sun, August 1, 1993, p. A-20.
Boston Globe, April 6, 1997, p. B3.
Business Week, March 1, 1993, p. 72-75.
Chicago Tribune, February 13, 1997, p. Evening 2.
Detroit Free Press, July 12, 1997, p. A4.
Emerge, October 1993, pp. 24-28.
Essence, November 1993, p. 102.
Jet, August 23, 1993, p. 4.
Newsweek, July 5, 1993, p. 26.
U.S. News and World Report, August 9, 1993, p. 33-35.
Washington Post, December 8, 1992, p. D-1. □