Before Congress, there were the streets Kweisi Mfume muses on his own atonement


WASHINGTON -- Kweisi Mfume used to run away from it. All of it. All of the litter and mess from his past that had nothing to do with his life now within the stately halls of Congress.

Dropping out of school. Shooting craps and swigging wine from a bottle on a street corner in West Baltimore. Fathering five sons, as he says, "before my time."

"I didn't think there was much inspiration there," says the Democratic congressman from Baltimore, sitting in his Capitol Hill office and reflecting on his past.

But then young people started coming up to him, telling him how they were trying to turn their lives around just as he had so adroitly turned his life around.

And he began to see, he says, that there was inspiration there.

He began to see that there was a lesson to be learned from his life, one that, in fact, is much like the message of tomorrow's Million Man March here in which Mr. Mfume will be participating and at which he is expected to speak.

The march for African-American men, spearheaded by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, is billed as "a day of atonement" for black men, a day to reflect on their responsibilities to their families and to their communities.

Some African-American organizations and leaders, including Mr. Mfume's fellow lawmakers, are not participating in the march because of Minister tory of in-cendiary rhetoric often perceived as hate-filled and anti-Semitic.

Maryland's other African-American member of Congress, Democrat Albert R. Wynn, has expressed only guarded support for the march and, although he will participate, has said he has "mixed feelings" about the event.

But Mr. Mfume, who as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1993 attempted to forge a "sacred covenant" with Minister Farrakhan, only to be overruled by caucus members who wanted no such relationship with the black separatist, has wholeheartedly embraced the event.

In Mr. Mfume's words, "The message has overtaken the messenger on this march."

It is a message Mr. Mfume relates to in a personal and emotional way: "The first lesson is it doesn't matter how you start in life, but it does matter how you finish," he says.

"It's not where you have been that should take center stage. It's where it is you're going from this point on.

"I learned that the hard way."

Ragged beginnings

Mr. Mfume, 46, says his own ragged start made him acutely aware of the pressures and temptations that young men face today, especially those growing up in poverty or in broken homes.

For his part, the boy who grew up in West Baltimore as Frizzell Gray -- he would later adopt the Swahili name that means "conquering son of kings" -- succumbed to those lures at age 16 after his mother died of cancer in his arms.

Aside from losing the anchor in his life, he would learn on the night of her death that his father, Clifton Gray, a truck driver who had never treated him very well, was not his birth father.

His biological father, it turned out, was a man he knew as a family friend.

The family split up, with Frizzell moving in with uncles and his three younger sisters going to live with their grandmother.

The young man dropped out of school, started working odd jobs and, angry and directionless, rebelled -- gambling, drinking, fighting, and, between the ages of 17 and 22, fathering five sons with four different women.

"I was running the street in gangs and on my way to hell in a handbasket," he says. "I can't put it any other way."

In those years, he says, he was sucked into the culture of the street "like quicksand that was fast and deep and overwhelming."

"If you are in the street when you are 17 or 18 years of age, regardless of what color you are, if you're in the street, there's always the lure of the street, the temptations of the street and the pressure of the street that says you have to, not only adjust to your environment, you have to conquer it," says Mr. Mfume.

"You've got to take on all the wrong aspects of it so you gain the respect of your peers. You get a twisted sense of reality."

'Time to own up'

He believes this week's march in Washington tells African-American males "it is time to own up to some of that."

It is time to abandon the "mental shackles," he says, that tell black men they should be tough and angry and "macho, macho, macho" all the time and should not have feelings or be caring, nurturing or responsible.

"A real man is someone who takes care of his children, who takes care of his family, who contributes to the development of other young people -- and who gives," he says.

In his case, he owned up to his responsibilities and started putting his life back together at age 22, finally fed up with his life and feeling that he was doing a disservice to both his religious beliefs and his mother's memory.

He says that the only thing that saved him, in fact, was the bedrock values his mother instilled in him at an early age.

"I couldn't run away from what I really was," he says. "And what I was was not a person of the street. But what I was was an individual taught to believe in himself and to always be optimistic."

He worked two jobs to try to provide money for the children he had fathered, picked up a high school equivalency degree and then enrolled in college, embarking on a course that would land him a career in radio, a seat on the Baltimore City Council and, in 1987, an office in the U.S. House of Representatives.

A father to his sons

Mr. Mfume says that from the start he maintained a relationship ** with his sons, now all in their mid-20s and living in Baltimore and the district.

When they were growing up, he says, the children lived with their mothers during the week, and stayed with him on weekends.

"It was a traditional relationship in a nontraditional set of circumstances," he says. "But I was determined that my sons would grow up as boys and young men and ultimately as men with a kinship and a relationship with one another and with a sense of honesty."

Mr. Mfume's "nontraditional set of circumstances" became an issue during his first congressional campaign in 1986 when his Republican opponent, St. George I. B. Crosse III, attacked his transgressions.

Mr. Mfume's sons were hurt by the attention, especially by being called "illegitimate," but they rallied to his side, helping to blunt the attack.

Mr. Mfume won with 87 percent of the vote.

The congressman says he still has a close relationship with his boys:

* Donald Mfume, a Howard University graduate who is opening a restaurant in Washington.

* Keith Gray, a Morgan State University graduate and director of a community service program at Bowie State College.

* Kevin Gray, an assistant manager of a Baltimore photo studio.

* Michael Mfume, a part-time student at Morgan and an independent filmmaker.

* Ronald Mfume, who is studying at Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia.

In the congressman's office are photos of his sons, including a 1993 father-son fashion layout from "Essence" magazine featuring the ever-dapper congressman, sporting a fedora and walking cane, with sons Donald (in Armani) and Michael (in Calvin Klein.)

"He's been a father to me, a friend and a mentor," says Keith Gray, 25, who says his father helped him get an internship at Bowie State that led to his current job there.

"It took a lot to achieve the goals he did."

Mr. Gray, who himself has a young daughter, says he intends to change his last name to Mfume, as his father always wanted him to do, after he goes to graduate school.

Mr. Mfume says he isn't confident that, if he were a teen-ager today in similar circumstances, his life would turn out as happily or as inspirational.

"I don't know if the same result would be possible because

young boys today have many more pressures than I could ever imagine," he says.

Besides greater temptations and more intense peer pressure, he believes it is the growing sense of uncertainty about life that keeps young people today from straightening out their lives.

"I had a greater sense that things would work out and that the world still had a lot of opportunity -- if you kept working at it, you'd find a way. I don't know if enough young people today -- black or white -- have that same belief."

Reasons to march

Which is why he'll be marching Monday. As will at least four of his sons and a couple of his nephews.

"If the march does nothing else, my hope is that it allows men to rededicate themselves to that very basic and simple concept that the reason we are here is to make the world better," he says, "and to make it better for the next generation."

He doesn't condemn those who are not participating in the march because of Minister Farrakhan's central role.

For his part, Mr. Mfume's relationship with the black Muslim leader has always been complicated. Representing a district that is 71 percent black, and where Nation of Islam members have been a positive presence as guards at public housing projects, Mr. Mfume has never tried to distance himself from or denounce Minister Farrakhan as other mainstream black leaders have.

Still, he insists that the march is not about support for Minister Farrakhan.

"If he has a million legs, then it's his march," says the politician. "It's clear this march has become the march of black men, not the march of any one individual."

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