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Mfume, Kweisi 1948–

Kweisi Mfume 1948

Politician, organization executive

Early Life Filled With Trouble

New Name and High-Profile Career

A Congressman with Clout

Took Over NAACP

Revived NAACP for New Century

Selected writings

Sources

As president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Kweisi Mfume is known in many circles as the new voice of hope for the African-American community. He overcame 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. Then, in 1996, he left his secure seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and took over as the leader of the NAACP, facing many challenges as he attempted to reform the civil rights minded group for a new century.

Since 1996 Mfume has radically increased the visibility of the NAACP through rallies and lawsuits, boosted membership by almost 500,000 members, and gained Non-Governmental Organization status from the United Nations, which, according to the Knight-Rider/ Tribune Business News, legitimizes its role as a consultant on foreign relations. Susan Baer of the Baltimore Sun said that because of his actions, both in the government and in the NAACP, Mfume has earned respect as a level-headed consensus-seeker and is well-known for his eloquence and widespread appeal.

Early Life Filled With Trouble

Mfume was born Frizzell Gray on October 24, 1948, in a working class neighborhood in Baltimore, Maryland. 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 Mfume was a good student who was protective of his three younger sisters. In his home, wrote a U.S. News & World Report correspondent, his parents emphasized education and civil rights. President John F. Kennedy and later Martin Luther King, Jr. were role models. Yet they had to watch the 1963 march on Washington on TV because the 40-mile trip cost too much. Mfume attended a segregated school, although the Supreme Court had outlawed such segregation in 1955. According to the U.S. News & World Report, [Mfume] could never figure out why he passed three schools to get to his own. Still, school was fineuntil his world caved in.

First Mfumes stepfather left the family. Then, when he was 16, his mother discovered she had cancer. She literally died in Mfumes arms quite suddenly one evening. He was devastated. Mfume told U.S. News & 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

At a Glance

Born Frizzell Cray on October 24, 1948, in Baltimore, MD; son of Mary Elizabeth (a factory worker}; divorced; children: five sons. Education: Morgan State University, BA (magna cum laude), 1976; Johns Hopkins University, MA, 1984, Politics: Democrat Religion: Baptist.

Career: WEBB radio, Baltimore, MD, announcer, 197274; Morgan State University public radio, announcer and talk show host, 197478; Baltimore City Council, councilman, 197887; U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC, congressional representative from the Seventh District of Maryland, 198796, chairman of Congressional Black Caucus, 199396; NAACP, president and CEO, 1996-; author, 1996-.

Memberships: Baltimore Museum of Art, board of trustees; Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government, senior advisory committee; University of Maryland, Meyerhoff national advisory board; Enterprise Foundation, board of trustees; Big Brothers and Big Sisters; Center Stage, Theater for a New Generation Advocacy, honorable chair; Morgan State University, Board of Regents.

Awards: Drum Major for Justice Award, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1997; Intergenerational Award, Sister 2 Sister magazine, 2000.

Addresses: Office NAACP, President 4805 Mt Hope Dr., Baltimore, MD 21215.

troubles forced the siblings into different households. At times Mfume worked as many as three different jobs in a weekfull-time in a bread factory, 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. 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 couldnt understand why everybody else had parents, had a house to go to and had dinner on the table when I didnt have any of those things. I couldnt 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 & 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.

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 cant 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.

New Name and High-Profile Career

In an effort to connect with his African heritage, Mfume adopted a new name in the early 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 nations 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 he became a news reader, and finally he earned a spot as an announcer. Despite pleas from management, he refused to part with his new name. Nor would he conform to the stations 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&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 bachelors 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 Baltimores 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. Mfumes 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 citys power structure. His attacks on Schaefer were particularly poisonous and the mayors contempt for Mfume was legendary. The two men almost came to blows on several occasions.

Gradually Mfume 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.

A Congressman with Clout

In 1986 a more temperate and polished Mfume announced his candidacy for the Seventh Congressional District, to replace retiring congressman Parren J. Mitchell. Mfumes 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 Mfumes 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 masters degree in 1984. Mfume won the congressional seat with three times the number of votes 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 presenta 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 didnt 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 constituentsa vast majority of whom are city dwellers. I keep coming back to these communities and the lessons I learned here because thats what got me where I am, he told the Washington Post. When I cant get anything moving in Washington I can always come back here. Whatever Im doing in Washington, if it doesnt matter here, it doesnt matter.

Over time Mfume became a key player in shaping the debate and legislation aimed at curing the ills of the nations inner cities, according to 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 became increasingly important to the House throughout the early 1990s. An overwhelming majority of the Congressional Black Caucus members were Democratic, but Mfume 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 U.S. 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, Benjamin Chavis, then-executive director of the NAACP, 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.

Took Over NAACP

In November of 1994 the Republican party won a majority of the votes cast for Congress, and the shift in power caused many changes in the House of Representatives, including, according to the Knight-Ridder/ Tribune News Service, the official dissolution of power of the Congressional Black Caucus. Mfume and other black representatives lost a good deal of the pull they held during the early 1990s and many felt that the issues that concerned them and their constituents would be tabled by the Republican-run Congress. Some of the representatives decided to retire, others attempted to make moves onto different committees in order to regain some of their power.

Another momentous event occurred earlier that same year that would have a direct impact on Mfumes political career. Executive director for the NAACP Benjamin Chavis was fired in August of 1994, leaving the organization without a leader and in dire financial trouble. It wasnt long before Mfume was approached by the NAACP to take over as the new president and CEO of the organization and by December of 1995, Mfume had accepted. Many people were shocked that Mfume would leave Congress considering his popularity within his district as well as his still considerable clout within the House, but as Mfume told Black Enterprise, In Congress, I could continue to wage the battle of being a minority party member fighting against a majority party and representing only one congressional district. Or, I could take advantage of the umbrella of the NAACP, effectively organize in 90% of all congressional districts around this country and challenge firsthand the representatives who vote against the interests of our community and who slow our economic empowerment.

Mfume officially took over the NAACP in February of 1996, and, along with the assumption of leadership, came the numerous challenges that the organization was facing. Most pressing perhaps was the financial trouble that Chavis had left the NAACP in after his misuse of funds and unnecessary spending. As Mfume told Black Enterprise in 1995, My first priority is to put in place an apparatus that will allow for absolute fiscal accountability that is beyond reproach. I want people to know that, from this point on, we will never be in a position of having to explain fiscal problems for whatever reasons and why proper follow-up was not done. By 1997 Mfume had created a system that accounted for all spending in the organization that erased the deficit of $4 million and created a $2 million surplus. This would be only the first of Mfumes successes with the NAACP.

Revived NAACP for New Century

In 1998 Mfume, along with NAACP chairman of the board Julian Bond, decided to begin making the group more proactive as it had been in the 1950s and 1960s. Their first target was network television stations. Mfume and Bond approached the major networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX, and threatened them with everything from nationwide boycotts of their programming and their sponsors to full-blown lawsuits for discrimination both on the television screen and behind the scenes in executive positions. All four networks agreed to sign diversity initiatives in 1999, and the NAACP kept close tabs on the progress of these networks. The NAACP also bought 100 shares of stock in the four networks so that, according to Mfume in the Business Wire, we can go to the board meeting and raise the kind of hell and the issues we think are necessary. By 2001 some of the networks were producing more television programs for African Americans and other minority viewers and many had instituted executives of minority status as well, but even so, it was still a far cry from what the NAACP hoped to accomplish. Mfume went back to the networks in 2001 and again threatened boycotts and class action lawsuits, which resulted in an even bigger response from the networks. Executive positions were created at the networks to deal with diversity in programming, positions that were filled by minorities themselves, and scheduled even more minority programming in prime-time. The NAACP and Mfume continue to examine the issue every year.

Network television is but one of many areas to which the NAACP has extended its influence. In November of 2000 Mfume attacked the political system fiercely over the voting fiasco in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. With many other groups behind him, he brought suits against the government for stifling the minority vote in Florida by printing confusing ballots and then refusing to allow a revote. In 2002 Mfume criticized President George W. Bush for ignoring the NAACP and for refusing to meet with them to discuss minority issues. He told the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, You cant be president of all the people when you only want to deal with some of the people. Mfume also resumed the groups interest in and heavy support for affirmative action in 2003 saying to the Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, We will litigate against colleges, universities and any other institutions of higher education who want to continue not to comply and find a way to continue to get around the law.

Perhaps the most significant direction that Mfume has taken the NAACP in is that of international affairs. In January of 2003 the NAACP was granted Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) status by the United Nations. By becoming an NGO, the NAACP is able to serve as an advisor and consultant to foreign governments and can also serve on the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Mfume took full advantage of this status and began to travel to numerous countries, many in Africa and the Caribbean, to fight for the rights of people of color worldwide. Many in the organization felt that the NAACP was beginning to spread itself too thin, and that it would begin to ignore national issues in favor of larger, international problems. But Mfume assured his members, according to the Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, It doesnt mean we have lost sight of all the domestic issues we have in the United States. It just means the organization is going back to the way it was originally with W.E.B. Du Bois, who was a pan-Africanist who founded us. Our struggle is not just with the United States. Our struggles is throughout the world.

Mfume has been praised for his numerous achievements with the NAACP, receiving a Drum Major for Justice Award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1997 and an Intergenerational Award from Sister 2 Sister magazine in 2000. He has also been an inspiration to many through his autobiography, No Free Ride: From The Mean Streets To The Mainstream, which he published in 1996. Many look to him as the next great leader of the African-American community, for he is already being compared to African American heroes such as Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, Mary McLeod Bethune and W.E.B. Du Bois. noted Black Enterprise. The magazine went on to say that Mfume is perhaps the one who can restore the NAACP to its glory and rekindle the lost faith of younger African Americans.

Selected writings

No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets To The Mainstream, OneWorld Publications, 1996.

(With Michael R. Gardner and George M. Elsey) Harry Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risk, Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.

Sources

Baltimore Sun, August 1, 1993, p. A-20.

Black Enterprise, February 1996, pp. 150153.

Broadcasting & Cable, August 20, 2001, p. 14.

Business Week, March 1, 1993, pp. 7275.

Business Wire, July 22, 1999.

Emerge, October 1993, pp. 2428.

Essence, November 1993, p. 102.

Jet, August 23, 1993, p. 4; October 14, 1996, pp. 1014; May 5, 1997, pp. 1415; September 30, 2002, p. 4.

Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, July 13, 2003.

Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, Dec 27, 1995; July 8, 2002; July 17, 2003.

Newsweek, July 5, 1993, p. 26.

PR Newswire, September 5, 2000.

U.S. News & World Report, August 9, 1993, pp. 3335.

Washington Post, December 8, 1992, p. D-1.

Anne Janette Johnson and Ralph G. Zerbonia

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Kweisi Mfume

Kweisi Mfume

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."

"Things Spun Out of Control"

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.

A New Name, a High-Profile Career

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."

A Congressman with Clout

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.

Further Reading

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. □

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Mfume, Kweisi 1948–

Kweisi Mfume 1948

Politician

Things Spun Out of Control

A New Name, a High-Profile Career

A Congressman with Clout

Sources

Congressman Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore has recently emerged as 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 Congressa 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 nations most visible and powerful African American lawmakers.

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.

Things Spun Out of Control

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

At a Glance

Name pronounced Kwa-ee-see Oom-foo-may; born Frizzell Gray, October 24, 1948, in Baltimore, MD; son of Mary Elizabeth (a factory worker); divorced; children: five sons. Education: Morgan State University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1976; Johns Hopkins University, M.A., 1984. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Baptist.

WEBB radio, Baltimore, MD, announcer, 1972-74; Morgan State University public radio, announcer and talk show host, 1974-78; Baltimore City Council, councilman, 1978-87; U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC, congressional representative from the Seventh District of Maryland, 1987, member of Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee; chairman of Congressional Black Caucus, 1993.

Member: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (member of advisory board).

Awards: Chairmans Award, NAACP, 1994.

Addresses: Office 2419 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515-2007.

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 fineuntil his world caved in.

First Mfumes stepfather left the family. Then, when he was sixteen, his mother discovered she had cancer. She literally died in Mfumes 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 weekfull-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 couldnt understand why everybody else had parents, had a house to go to and had dinner on the table when I didnt have any of those things. I couldnt 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 in their twenties.

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 cant 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.

A New Name, a High-Profile Career

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 nations 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 stations 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&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 bachelors 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 Baltimores 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. Mfumes 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 citys power structure. His attacks on Schaefer were particularly poisonousand the mayors 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.

A Congressman with Clout

In 1986, a more temperate and polished Mfume announced his candidacy for the Seventh Congressional District, to replace retiring congressman Parren J. Mitchell. Mfumes 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 Mfumes 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 masters 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 presenta 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 didnt 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 constituentsa vast majority of whom are city dwellers. I keep coming back to these communities and the lessons I learned here because thats what got me where I am, he told the Washington Post. When I cant get anything moving in Washington I can always come back here.Whatever Im doing in Washington, if it doesnt matter here, it doesnt matter.

Over time Mfume became a key player in shaping the debate and legislation aimed at curing the ills of the nations 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 Mfumes 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, its a contact sport. And I dont play to tie, I try to play to win. But you can only win if you are in the game. He added: Im going to be a player in the Democratic Party if they dont run me out.

Sources

Baltimore Sun, August 1, 1993, p. A-20.

Business Week, March 1, 1993, p. 72-75.

Emerge, October 1993, p. 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-l.

Anne Janette Johnson

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Mfume, Kweisi

Kweisi Mfume

Born: October 24, 1948
Baltimore, Maryland

African American civil rights activist, city councilman, congressman, and professor

Kweisi Mfume has been an active leader in the civil rights struggle for many decades. As a congressman, Mfume became one of the most well-known African American politicians in Washington, D.C. Believing that he could achieve more for civil rights by working for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Mfume eventually left Congress to become president of the organization.

"Things spun out of control"

Kweisi Mfume was born Frizzell Gray on October 24, 1948, in Baltimore, Maryland. His stepfather, Clifton Gray, was a truck driver, and his mother, Mary Elizabeth Gray, took odd jobs, but the family was often short of cash. Mfume was a good student who was protective of his three younger sisters. When Mfume was eleven, Clifton Gray abandoned the family. Then, when Mfume was sixteen, his mother discovered that she had cancer and soon died. He told U.S. News and World Report, "After she died of cancer, things spun out of control." Mfume quit high school during his second year and went to work to help support his sisters. At times he worked as many as three different jobs in a single week.

Mfume also began hanging out on street corners drinking with friends. As 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's life changed on a July night in the late 1960s. He had been drinking with his friends when suddenly he began to feel strange. "People were standing around shooting craps [playing dice] 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 diploma and pursue a college degree.

A new name

In an effort to connect with his African background, Mfume adopted a new name early in the 1970s. His aunt had traveled to Ghana and suggested the name when she returned. "Kweisi Mfume" is a phrase that translates as "conquering son of kings." Mfume went to work at a radio station in Baltimore. He began as an unpaid volunteer and eventually became an announcer. He also earned a bachelor's degree with honors from Morgan State University in 1976. When that college opened a radio station, Mfume was hired as program director. Mfume became one of the strongest voices in Baltimore's black community. His growing popularity convinced him to try his hand at politics.

In 1978 Mfume ran for a seat in the Baltimore City Council. After an advisor recommended that he start wearing suits and ties, he won the election by only three votes. Mfume became a constant critic of then-Baltimore mayor William Donald Schaefer (1921), accusing Schaefer of ignoring poor neighborhoods. The two men almost came to blows on several occasions. Gradually Mfume became aware that politics was a game of compromise and building coalitions (temporary alliances). He learned the art of negotiation (give and take to settle an issue) and even developed a friendly relationship with Schaefer. Mfume told Business Week of his former enemy, "We could go to our graves battling each other, or we could get things done."

A congressman with clout

In 1986 Mfume became a candidate for Congress from the Seventh District. His opponents attacked him by reminding voters that Mfume had dropped out of high school and fathered many children without marrying the mothers. Still, he won the election and took his seat in Congress in 1987. When he found himself on the House Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs, he taught himself about banking issues and economics. When the map of his district was changed to include more rural regions of Maryland, he studied farming and zoning laws to be able to represent his new constituents (members of his district). Mfume told the Washington Post, "I wanted people to get used to me real quick because I didn't plan on leaving."

Mfume established himself as a liberal who supported an increase in federal aid to inner cities. He returned to Baltimore nearly every week to deal firsthand with his constituents, many of whom lived in the city. "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."

By his fourth term, Mfume had enough influence to become chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group in Congress that supports the interests of African Americans. Soon after his election as chairman, Mfume and the Caucus presented a list of demands to President Bill Clinton (1946), 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 (1948) was quoted as saying in Emerge. Mfume told Business Week, "We are going to be taken seriously. If that means killing an important piece of [leadership-backed] legislation, then that will be the case."

A better opportunity

On February 20, 1996, Mfume left his seat in Congress to become the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He said that he could do more for civil rights as NAACP president than in Congress. After one year of leadership, Mfume had erased the NAACP's $4.5 million debt. However, many questioned whether he would be able to restore the association to its former place of leadership in the civil rights movement. He also faced the task of trying to change the image of the association in an effort to increase appeal among younger African Americans.

After one year on the job, 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." With the group's financial problems behind him, Mfume told members that the NAACP still had a long way to go. Among the issues he intended to address were affordable health care, conservation, voting reform, and hate crimes. In January 2000, NBC Television struck a deal with the NAACP to find more minorities to write, produce, and direct television shows after NAACP complaints about the "virtual whitewash" in new programming. Mfume predicted similar agreements would follow with the ABC, CBS, and Fox networks.

For More Information

Mfume, Kweisi. No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets to the Mainstream. New York: One World, 1996.

Paterra, M. Elizabeth. Kweisi Mfume: Congressman and NAACP Leader. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2001.

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Mfume, Kweisi

Mfume, Kweisi

October 24, 1948


Civil rights leader, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and former U.S. congressman Kweisi Mfume was born Frizzell Gray in Maryland, the eldest of four children, and grew up in a poor community just outside of Baltimore. His mother, Mary Willis, worked on an assembly line for an airplane parts manufacturer. His stepfather, Clifton Gray, abandoned the family when Mfume was twelve years old. Four years later, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Devastated by his mother's death, Mfume dropped out of high school and began working odd jobs to make ends meet while he and his three sisters lived with relatives. Mfume found that he could make much more money hustling on the streets than working for wages shining shoes or pushing bread through a slicer.

By the age of twenty-two, Mfume's life seemed to have completely spun out of control; he had five children with four different women, gang life was becoming deadly, and a number of his closest friends had been killed in Vietnam.

Mfume resolved to turn his life around. He began taking night GED courses for his high school equivalency degree and then enrolled at Baltimore Community College. Mfume developed a keen interest in politics in the early 1970s while working as a disc jockey at local radio stations. During this time, he changed his name from Frizzell "Pee Wee" Gray to Kweisi Mfume (a West African Igbo name roughly translating as "conquering son of kings").

In 1976 Mfume graduated magna cum laude with a degree in urban planning from Morgan State University. Two years later, he parlayed his growing fame as a talk-radio provocateur to win a seat as a maverick Democratic Party member on the Baltimore City Council. Mfume served two terms on the city council and then went on to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, where he received an M.A. in political science. In 1986 he won the seat of the Seventh Congressional District vacated by his political mentor, Parren J. Mitchell. Mfume went on to serve five terms in U.S. Congress, rising to the position of chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Mfume's campaign to end apartheid in South Africa earned him the friendship of Nelson Mandela in the early 1990s. However, while he supported democracy abroad, Mfume remained more committed to the preservation of the Democratic Party than the expansion of independent electoral options for African Americans. During the 1990s he joined other black elected officials in limiting the growth of a multiracial political movement that attempted to challenge the control of the electoral process by both major parties. In 1996 Mfume left Congress to lead the NAACP, where he pursued corporate donations to retire the organization's debt. Mfume resigned from his post as president of the NAACP in 2004.

The recipient of seven honorary doctoral degrees, Mfume serves on the board of trustees at Johns Hopkins University and the Enterprise Foundation. His autobiography, No Free Ride: From The Mean Streets to the Mainstream, details his life.

See also Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Congressional Black Caucus; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Politics in the United States

Bibliography

Mfume, Kweisi. No Free Ride: From The Mean Streets to the Mainstream. New York: One World, 1996.

Robinson, Alonford James, Jr. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African American Experience. Edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr. Oxford: Perseus, 1999.

omar h. ali (1996)
Updated by author 2005

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Mfume, Kweisi

Kweisi Mfume

BORN: October 24, 1948 • Baltimore, Maryland

American civil rights activist; politician

Kweisi Mfume, a Maryland Democrat, continued the struggle to achieve civil rights for African Americans in the 1970s, furthering the work of an earlier generation of activists. As an elected official, head of the influential Congressional Black Caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and later president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Mfume has spent much of his career working to ensure political, economic, and social justice for African Americans and other minorities.

"In spite of the increasing rates of poverty, the concerns of the poor exist on the fringes of our nation's political agenda."

Tragedy and trouble

Born Frizzell Gray on October 24, 1948, in Baltimore, Maryland, he later changed his name to Kweisi Mfume. His mother, Mary, worked in an airplane parts factory and married a truck driver named Clifton Gray when Mfume was still an infant. The young Mfume grew up thinking that Gray was his biological father. The family lived in a section of West Baltimore called Turners Station, which had originally been settled by a group of African American shipbuilders early in the nineteenth century.

Mfume suffered from health problems when he was a child, but he loved school and excelled there. He recalled that his parents were enthusiastic observers of the ongoing civil rights movement that began gaining momentum in the late 1950s. Once, Mfume even snuck out of his bedroom one night when he learned that U.S. President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) was going to speak at a political rally in the neighborhood. As he later wrote in his autobiography No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets to the Mainstream, "It was the first time I saw a president; it stayed with me. There was something about politics that I couldn't put my finger on, except that I knew I was drawn to it."

Mfume's home life fell apart as he entered his teen years. The man he assumed was his father abandoned the family when Mfume was twelve, and then his mother was diagnosed with cancer. When he was sixteen, his mother died in his arms. Later that same night, he was stunned to learn that a longtime family friend was actually his biological father. Grief-stricken, angry, and now responsible for taking care of his younger sisters, Mfume dropped out of school a few weeks later. He spent the next few years living with relatives or friends and working in low-paying and unskilled jobs. Eventually he gave up and quit working. "I was a high school dropout without a single skill in the world," he wrote in his autobiography. "All I knew how to do was push bread through a slicer, shine shoes and shoot dice. I was completely broke most of the time and didn't really have a roof to call my own."

Mfume ran with a tough crowd of similarly disillusioned young men who had grown up with him in and around Turners Station. He had more than one encounter with police. He also fathered five sons by three different women. An unexpected encounter with a local black politician helped set Mfume in a more positive direction. The incident happened on Hankins Corner, a local hangout, and involved Parren Mitchell, who was running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from the West Baltimore district. Mfume jeered at Mitchell from the crowd, telling the black Democrat to get off his "turf." But Mitchell responded with even tougher talk. He told Mfume that he was shameful and discredited his community.

From roughneck to a run for office

That incident and another one, also on the notorious Hankins Corner, changed Mfume's life. In the second revelation, he had a vision of his late mother and suddenly realized he did not want to live his current life any longer. He wound up campaigning for Mitchell and decided to return to school to earn a high school equivalency diploma. After that, he began courses at Baltimore Community College. In 1972 he changed his name to "Kweisi Mfume." The combination was suggested by one of his aunts, who had recently returned from Ghana, a republic in West Africa. In the language of Ghana's Ibo people, the words mean "conquering son of kings."

Interested in communications media, Mfume found a job at a leading black radio station in Baltimore. The station also happened to be owned by rhythm and blues star James Brown (1933–). Mfume started as an unpaid intern, but progressed to news reader and then to full-time disc jockey. The songs he played sometimes had a decidedly political tone. "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a stirring spoken-word anthem by American musician and writer Gil Scott-Heron (1949–) was a particular favorite of Mfume's. He also invited listeners to share their opinions on political topics. Until that point, the station had no political ambition or direction, but calls came flooding in and Mfume put his listeners on the air. Management gave him his own call-in show, and ratings soared.

In 1976 Mfume graduated with honors from Morgan State University in Baltimore with a degree in urban planning. He went on to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for a graduate degree, but kept his job as program director for Morgan State's radio station, where he also hosted his own show. On the program, he often criticized the mostly white Baltimore and Maryland Democratic organizations for failing to meet the needs of their black voters. In 1978 he decided to challenge the political establishment on a far more confrontational level when he announced his candidacy for a seat on the Baltimore City Council.

Mfume had always ignored those who told him that he might need to change his African name back to his original one, or tone down his words, when it came to his career ambitions. On one occasion, he listened when a political adviser told him that if he wanted to run for office, he had to stop wearing the dashiki—the loose, brightly colored African tunic-shirts that were popular among African American activists at the time. Mfume began wearing a more conventional suit and tie. He won his Baltimore City Council seat by just three votes.

Elected to the U.S. Congress

In 1986 when Congressman Parren Mitchell retired, Mfume ran for his seat in the U.S. Congress, representing Maryland's Seventh Congressional District in Washington. His political enemies challenged his qualifications for serving on Capitol Hill based on his past. They pointed out that he was a high school dropout whose association with a crowd of unemployed black males might be described as "gang membership." They noted that Mfume had fathered five children but never married any of their mothers. His sons proved to be Mfume's secret campaign weapon, however. They were, by then, well-spoken and accomplished teens. They spoke up to explain that their dad had been a dedicated and involved parent to all of them. For sixteen years, others reminded voters, Mfume had worked two jobs to support the boys.

Mfume won the congressional race by a large margin, and he was sworn into office in January 1987. Many years later, he claimed that the day remained his proudest professional achievement, "because it represented the culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of belief," he told Richette Haywood in Ebony magazine. He also said that it had special meaning for him "because I knew that it would have been my mother's proudest moment."

Mfume was reelected four more times to two-year terms and never received less than 84 percent of the vote. He had a productive and noteworthy career on Capitol Hill, fighting in a Republican-dominated political climate for passage of laws that were important to the working poor and minorities. In 1993, during his fourth term in Washington, he was elected head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). The position suddenly made Mfume a figure of national prominence. The CBC worked to support and promote issues of importance to black Americans through federal legislation, and Mfume emerged as its outspoken and no-nonsense new leader. Immediately after taking over, for example, he criticized President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001), a fellow Democrat, for withdrawing support for civil-rights scholar Lani Guinier to become assistant attorney general.

Revives NAACP

Some people even predicted that Mfume might hold the influential speaker of the house seat in Congress one day. But he surprised many in early 1996 when he resigned his seat in Congress to become president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was a shock to many, for at that time the civil rights organization, founded in 1909, was struggling. It was more than $3 million in debt and had been plagued by corruption and sexual harassment scandals in its executive offices in recent years. Some claimed the organization was a weak remnant of the past and should dissolve itself rather than limp onward with so many internal problems.

Mfume believed the NAACP still had some important work to do, however, and rejected the idea that it had become irrelevant to African Americans. He was not about to let it go under, he told journalist George Packer in an interview for the Nation, because it had a historic legacy and the community owed it to itself to keep it going. "I don't think it's fair to all those people, nameless and faceless, dead and gone, many of whom could not speak the King's English [speaking correct English], didn't have a degree, but who loved the organization sometimes more than they loved themselves," Mfume said.

A year after taking over, Mfume announced that the NAACP had removed its debt thanks to sound financial strategies. Meanwhile, he led the organization's efforts to bring more minority faces to prime-time television, both behind and in front of the camera. Mfume and others had complained about the lack of minorities being represented on the television networks and threatened a boycott if the situation didn't change. He also increased voter-registration efforts. In the fall of 1998, he and others were arrested outside the U.S. Supreme Court in an NAACP protest over the lack of minority law clerks in the building. The Supreme Court clerkships are the most popular and desirable of all internships for law-school graduates. Until then, there had been few African Americans who had worked in that capacity.

Mfume also worked hard to increase membership in the NAACP, especially among the younger generation. A decade after he took over, the number of NAACP branches on college campuses had doubled. Working toward a mix of short-and long-term goals, he contended, was the best plan for the NAACP and its future. Television viewers deserved to see a more accurate representation of their communities, but it was also important that the NAACP be prepared to take on other protests at a later date, whatever they might be. "The vision I have is to empower the next generation economically, educationally and otherwise," he said in the Ebony interview with Haywood, "in such a way that we don't have to worry about whether they will be okay because they will be."

Enters Senate race

Mfume made another surprising career move on November 30, 2004, when he announced that he would be stepping down from the NAACP. His resignation was effective January 1, 2005. In his resignation remarks, Mfume noted that: "Today I prepare to step forward into an America of greater need but also into an America of greater hope…. In order to win the fight against poverty, eliminate discrimination and foster greater tolerance for the persons and things that we find different from ourselves, we are obligated to work together in coalition for the greater good." Later that year, the organization's board of directors chose retired Verizon executive Bruce S. Gordon as its new leader.

In March 2005 Mfume held a press conference and confirmed that he was returning to politics—this time as a candidate for one of Maryland's two U.S. Senate seats in the 2006 race. He hoped to replace Senator Paul Sarbanes (1933–), who planned to retire. If Mfume won, he would be only the fourth African American ever elected to the upper chamber of Congress by popular vote.

On his 2006 campaign Web site, Mfume offered his characteristically blunt criticisms of a Republican-controlled White House and Congress. He noted that before Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of Louisiana, Mississippi, and other areas in the Gulf Coast region, many in Congress as well as President George W. Bush (1946–; served 2001–) did not acknowledge the problem of poverty in the United States.

Citing the millions of people who live in poverty, especially many women and children, he added: "In spite of the increasing rates of poverty, the concerns of the poor exist on the fringes [outer edge] of our nation's political agenda. Too many in Congress shy away from a discussion of the poor. Yet, the pain of poverty cuts across every boundary of race, region and religion."

For More Information

BOOKS

Mfume, Kweisi. No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets to the Mainstream. New York: Ballantine, 1996.

Paterra, Elizabeth M. Kweisi Mfume: Congressman and NAACP Leader. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2001.

PERIODICALS

Borger, Gloria. "Up from the Street Corner." U.S. News & World Report (August 9, 1993): p. 33.

Haywood, Richette. "Can Kweisi Mfume Turn the NAACP Around?" Ebony (January 1997): p. 94.

"NAACP Leader Kweisi Mfume Tells His Inspiring Life Story in Book No Free Ride." Jet (October 14, 1996): p. 10.

Packer, George. "A Tale of Two Movements." Nation (December 14, 1998): p. 19.

Reed, K. Terrell. "NAACP's Mfume Steps Down." Black Enterprise (February 2005): p. 31.

WEB SITES

"Poverty." Mfume for U.S. Senate 2006. http://www.mfumeforsenate.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=20&Itemid=65 (accessed on July 5, 2006).

"Resignation Remarks of NAACP President Kweisi Mfume." National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. http://www.naacp.org/news/2004/2004-11-30.html (accessed on July 5, 2006).

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"Mfume, Kweisi." American Social Reform Movements Reference Library. . Retrieved September 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/mfume-kweisi

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