Mfume to Leave NAACP Post
Rights Leader Plays Down Talk of Future Political Office

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, December 1, 2004; Page A02

Kweisi Mfume resigned as president and chief executive officer of the NAACP yesterday, saying he would end nine years at the head of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization at the end of the year.

Dennis C. Hayes, the NAACP's general counsel, will serve as acting president after Mfume steps down Dec. 31. Hayes said the organization will seek a successor "with an understanding and commitment to civil rights and the struggle. Someone with a business background, management skills."

Mfume's announcement at a midday news conference ignited a rumor that he would seek to reenter politics, possibly with a 2006 bid for the Senate seat now held by Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.). Sarbanes is expected to seek reelection.

Mfume quickly played down the whispers in an interview, saying, "It's kind of like the rumor that I was going to run for mayor [of Baltimore] four years ago. Paul Sarbanes is my friend. It's too early for me to speculate. It's disrespectful for me to talk about what-ifs."

But Mfume, who grew up in Baltimore and went on to represent Maryland as a Democrat in Congress, did not completely back away from the idea. "I hear the rumors," he said. "They're not going anywhere. I'm a partisan animal, and at some time I would like to get back into the fray. I'm not ruling anything out."

The NAACP's core issues remain the same as when the group was founded by Ida B. Wells-Barnett and W.E.B. DuBois in the early 1900s: employment, housing and election protection. "The country's more segregated than before Brown v. Board of Education," the 1954 school desegregation case that went before the Supreme Court, Hayes said.

"We were sorry to hear he did not want his contract to be renewed," Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP board, said of Mfume. "He brought his experience in public life. He brought his tenure on Capitol Hill, his contacts in the political and financial worlds and his hard work. We needed all that."

Mfume said he is leaving because a gut feeling told him it was time. His departure comes at a time of concern at the NAACP.

President Bush broke tradition by declining to attend its annual conferences after harsh criticism from Bond. And the IRS launched an investigation of the NAACP, saying the organization may have violated its tax-exempt status when Bond continued to criticize Bush during the presidential campaign.

The NAACP is contesting the IRS's reasons for launching the investigation, and Mfume said any finding by the agency probably would not stand in court.

When Mfume was selected as president in 1995, the organization was sinking under $3 million in debt, a sex scandal involving former president Benjamin Chavis and charges that it had lost its relevance.

With the help of then-Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams and Bond, her successor, Mfume raised money by bringing corporate leaders into the organization. The NAACP is now operating with no debt, Mfume and others in the group said.

"Mr. Mfume was instrumental in helping accomplish financial stability by raising money and, of course, spending it wisely," Hayes said.

Whoever succeeds Mfume "has tall shoes to fill," said Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. But, she said, "they will find another dynamic leader. One thing I liked about Mfume's tenure is he did reach out to younger people."

Under Mfume, the group registered more black voters than ever during the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. He filed discrimination lawsuits on behalf of black college students against the city of Daytona Beach, Fla., and the Adam's Mark hotel chain.

Although Mfume's leadership was largely successful, said Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor, he allowed the NAACP to be marginalized by the Bush administration. Mfume did not seem to have enough fire, Walters said.

"The chairman, in terms of the strength of his civil rights oratory, had more impact than the CEO," Walters said. "I think the organization needs a more aggressive style of leadership."

But Walters's mild criticism was drowned out by praise. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, a job Mfume once held, said: "He deserves a lot of credit for erasing that debt. The [civil rights] report card he instituted with respect to businesses I thought was absolutely brilliant. He forced them to treat African Americans better."

G.I. Johnson, president of the NAACP's Baltimore branch, was nostalgic after the news conference. "I know the struggles," he said. "I came up at the same time Kweisi came up."

Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company