NAACP stability restored, Mfume moves on
With troubled days behind, rights group eyes new mission; 'He addressed
the relevant issues'
By Kelly Brewington
December 1, 2004
Kweisi Mfume announced his resignation as president of the NAACP
yesterday, calling it "the most rewarding and most fulfilling position
of my life" while leaving a hole at the top of the organization he
saved from scandal and the brink of bankruptcy.
As some staff members at the Northwest Baltimore headquarters wept
during the 56-year-old Mfume's announcement, others saw an opportunity
for the nation's oldest civil rights organization to recommit itself to
social justice in ways not undertaken since the 1950s and 1960s.
Though speculation began on possible permanent successors, the group's
longtime general counsel, Dennis C. Hayes, was quickly tapped to serve
as interim president.
Mfume's departure comes at a difficult point in terms of the
organization's relationship with the nation's political leadership.
President Bush has refused to meet with the NAACP, and the Internal
Revenue Service is auditing the group's tax-exempt status to determine
whether it has crossed the line into partisan activities. The abrupt
resignation also reignited the broader debate discussed for years in
black communities across America: What is the future of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People?
When the former Baltimore councilman and U.S. congressman took the helm
at the NAACP almost nine years ago, the organization was mired in a sex
scandal involving then-President Benjamin F. Chavis and teetering on
the edge of bankruptcy.
Mfume gave up what he called a "safe seat in Congress" representing
Maryland's 7th District, bringing national credentials as former
chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
He has been credited with raising millions to help the group emerge
from debt, boosting membership on college campuses - though the overall
number has remained at about 500,000 for the past several years - and
restoring the organization's overall credibility.
"He addressed the relevant issues of our time," the Rev. Jesse Jackson
said. "He remained on the cutting edge."
Despite speculation that Mfume clashed with Chairman Julian Bond on the
tactics, Bond lauded Mfume's leadership in saving the 95-year-old
"In short order, he and our former chair, Myrlie Evers-Williams,
restored us to solvency and to our primacy among civil rights
organizations," said Bond. "He has been one of the most effective
spokespersons for justice and fair play."
Board members said they had high hopes for Mfume, and he did not let
"We started at the same time, and I was so hopeful that he would make a
tremendous impact on the organization, which he has done," said the
Rev. Morris Shearin, a national board member from Washington. "He
brought a new outlook, and one of his greatest assets was his
involvement with youth. His strongest legacy is what he did by bringing
college students in and making them leaders in this organization."
With Mfume's apparent successes, questions were repeatedly raised
yesterday about why he would leave.
"That is assuming that Kweisi Mfume wants to be president of the NAACP
for the rest of his life," said David Bositis, senior research
associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a
Washington think tank on minority issues.
"I think the choice came down to was he going to be there for another
20 to 25 years, or was he going to do something else for himself while
creating an opportunity for someone else to step in and do as well or
Mfume reiterated yesterday that since the moment he accepted the
position, he never planned to be at the NAACP for the rest of his life.
"I said then that I am not coming to the NAACP to stay, my goal is to
come help others get a job done," Mfume said, choking up as he spoke of
fearing that his 14-year-old son would grow up without his father at
basketball games and PTA meetings.
But with a reported rift between Mfume and Bond coupled with the
unexpected timing of Mfume's departure, others wondered if there were
systemic problems with his leadership.
"Julian Bond is the strongest voice in the leadership cadre," said
Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute
at the University of Maryland, College Park. "I think it probably all
came to a head when people began asking why couldn't the president take
that strong role."
But a more critical need is action on big civil rights issues and a
consistent NAACP leadership to back it up, Walters said.
Mfume's departure should stand not as a loss for the organization but
as an opportunity for needed change, he said.
"He's done some very good things, but when you look at the
bread-and-butter issues of the black community, such as employment - in
New York City, for instance, half the black males are unemployed - they
should have done more to address that," he said.
Mfume's tenure included notable successes, such as the annual report
cards of major hotel chains - criticism that resulted in some companies
adding black board members and beefing up advertising in
African-American communities, said Walters.
Still, the NAACP has failed to persuade the Bush administration to
confront civil rights issues, he said.
Bush as an issue
Bush declined to speak to the NAACP convention this summer, making him
the first sitting president since Herbert Hoover not to address the
group, Bond said. Though Bond gave a blistering convention speech
criticizing Bush on everything from the war in Iraq to education, Mfume
has done little by comparison, said Walters.
Mfume emphasized recent efforts to try to bridge the gap between the
NAACP and the Bush administration. He sent a note to Bush the day after
the election, saying the group's leaders would like to meet. Bush
adviser Karl Rove called Mfume yesterday morning to offer the
president's best wishes.
Bond's convention speech was the impetus for an IRS audit of the NAACP
just weeks before Election Day. The audit claimed Bond crossed the
lines of a tax-exempt organization by participating in a political
Though the group's nonprofit status is still under review, Walters said
that Bond's comments are the kind of criticism the group should be
involved in. "What do you do? You could roll over or you could fight
Key to a more strident NAACP is leadership that can deliver such a
message. Walters suggested the fiery style of Jackson or the Rev. Al
Sharpton, with the connections and credibility of someone like U.S.
Rep. Maxine Waters of California.
There will be no shortage of potential successors, said NAACP board
members and political observers.
Among names mentioned yesterday as possible candidates were Bond,
Jackson - who dismissed the possibility - and several congressmen,
including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, who chairs the
Congressional Black Caucus, as Mfume once did. Other candidates could
include NAACP office holders, such as Hilary Shelton, director of the
NAACP's Washington bureau.
The NAACP will have little trouble attracting a strong new leader,
Cummings said. "There will be no shortage of candidates for the
position. After all, it's one of the premier positions in the country
with regards to addressing the concerns of the African-American
Cummings credited Mfume with restoring financial stability and a
greater presence but added that the group is at a pivotal moment.
"I think the NAACP at this juncture in history is facing many obstacles
as any civil rights organization would," he said. The organization has
to be concerned about Supreme Court appointments and the effect they
will have on affirmative action, civil rights and environmental
protection, he said.
"The NAACP is going to have to quickly rally to replace Kweisi with
someone who wants to take on those challenges. This is not going to be
an easy job."
Asked about his interest, Cummings said: "I'll have to cross that
bridge if I get to it. To know that my name has been mentioned is a
tremendous honor. I'd have to do some serious praying and
soul-searching, because that's something that would change my life."
Sun staff writers JoAnna Daemmrich and Ivan Penn contributed to this
Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun