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."
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 campaign.
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 harder."
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 community."
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 article.