Kweisi Mfume, Julian Bond

Kweisi Mfume, NAACP president for almost nine years, listens as Chairman Julian Bond speaks at a news conference after the resignation announcement. (Sun photo by Andre F. Chung / November 30, 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 organization.

"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 them down.

"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 better?"

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."