WASHINGTON -- In a surprise announcement, Rep. Kweisi Mfume said yesterday that he would leave the security of his West Baltimore congressional seat for the uncertain task of reinvigorating the NAACP as its president and chief executive officer.
The announcement came after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's 64-member board ratified a search committee's recommendation that Mr. Mfume, 47, be offered the $200,000-a-year job.
"I am convinced without reservation that I can best effect social, economic and political change in the broader capacity that the NAACP represents," Mr. Mfume, a Democrat who has represented Maryland's 7th District since 1987, told a news conference.
He said he would resign his House seat, to which he is routinely re-elected with more than 80 percent of the vote, and take "the road less traveled." He is to join the Baltimore-based NAACP in mid-February, three weeks before the Maryland Democratic congressional primary.
Under state law, House vacancies are filled through a special primary and general election. Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday that he would move quickly to have Mr. Mfume's seat filled.
Mr. Mfume's move, which blindsided politicians and civil rights activists, would mean the departure of a leading black voice in Congress to a scandal-beset organization whose very survival has been questioned. The congressman said he expects a "sea of candidates" to run for his House seat.
Mr. Mfume, who gained national prominence as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he would bring major changes to the NAACP. The organization is $3.2 million in debt and has been weakened by two years of internal bickering.
The first changes came yesterday as the board agreed in principle to Mr. Mfume's conditions for taking the job: that his title would be president/CEO instead of executive director, and that he would report to the board's 17-member executive committee, not to the full board.
He aims to reduce the size of the board, which is now larger than the NAACP's depleted national staff.
"I told the board that if there was not a total willingness to put aside differences and to embrace the future together, then I didn't need the job and I didn't need to waste anybody's time," Mr. Mfume said in an interview.
The congressman said he would "reinvigorate the age-old concept of coalition," reaffirming the NAACP's integrationist tradition. But he said he would respect the efforts of Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam to rally blacks under a nationalist banner.
Board dissidents scrapped plans to challenge the search committee, in deference to Mr. Mfume's stature. No board members openly dissented when a voice vote was taken to make him leader of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights group.
"When you bring somebody like this at the height of his political career, it is hard for even the worst naysayers to play with that," said Rupert Richardson, who has held the largely ceremonial position of president. She said that job would be retitled "chancellor."
NAACP Chairman Myrlie Evers-Williams, who has consolidated her hold on the board with the Mfume appointment, said she was "absolutely ecstatic."
A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., co-chairman of the search committee that recruited Mr. Mfume, hailed him as having "the brilliance of W. E. B. DuBois, the eloquence of Martin Luther King, the toughness of Thurgood Marshall."
Joseph E. Madison, a Washington radio host and board member who was a candidate for the job, called the selection "a great choice. He has all the ingredients we will need to move ahead. This closes a rather rough chapter."
The NAACP has been without an executive director since the firing of the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. in August 1994. Dr. Chavis was dismissed after he committed up to $332,400 in NAACP money to settle a threatened sexual-harassment suit without board approval.
Then, in February, Mrs. Evers-Williams defeated Chairman William F. Gibson, who had been accused of financial improprieties. Only then did the board turn to finding a new leader for the organization. The search began in May.
Mr. Mfume's name surfaced last summer as a potential successor to Dr. Chavis, but his interest in the job was a closely held secret. He began talks nearly two months ago with the co-chairmen of the search committee, Judge Higginbotham and Lenny Springs, a North Carolina bank executive.
But it was not until Friday night that Mr. Mfume met with the full search committee. Most board members did not know who the candidate would be until yesterday morning. "This thing really started to jell in the last 10 days or so," Mr. Mfume said.
Mr. Mfume said the Democrats' loss of power in Congress was not the key to his decision to leave his seat, although that was a factor for many of the 20 other House Democrats who are leaving Congress. Five other House Democrats have switched parties to join the Republicans.
As an African-American, Mr. Mfume said, "I have always lived under minority status."
He said he decided to abandon "one of the safest of safe seats" in Congress to head an NAACP that was "a flickering glimmer of the organization in its heyday" because he was so concerned about the "ultra-conservative, right-wing agenda" of the Republican congressional majority.
"I learned at an early age that life is a short commodity," he said, alluding to his mother's death when he was 16. "You have to do all you can while you can."
Mr. Mfume said he told President Clinton, House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Richard Gephardt, the Democratic minority leader, of his decision Friday.
He said Mr. Clinton was "a bit flabbergasted." But he said the president quickly understood that Mr. Mfume could be more effective fighting what the congressman called "this mean political agenda" from outside Congress.
He said Mr. Gingrich "couldn't believe it for a moment and just sat there looking at me. He told me, 'I have to say this is the wisest decision the organization could make, because you will do a great job.' "
Mr. Mfume's early life gave no hint that he would consort with presidents and be mentioned in the same breath as Thurgood Marshall. Born Frizzell Gray in West Baltimore -- he later adopted the Swahili name (pronounced kwah-EE-see oom-FOO-may) that means "conquering son of kings" -- he dropped out of school and fathered five sons with four different women by the time he was 22. (One of them, Donald, 27, accompanied him to Washington yesterday.)
In his 20s, he went back to school, earned a degree at Morgan State University, became a talk-show host on the college's WEAA-FM and won a seat on the Baltimore City Council. He served seven years there before his election to Congress.
Mr. Mfume faces a task nearly as daunting as turning his own life around in trying to revitalize the civil rights group. The NAACP has a long list of creditors and has struggled to pay expenses, even with a staff whose size has been cut by more than half over the past three years.
NAACP members and corporate givers must be reassured that their dues and donations will be managed properly. Young blacks must be persuaded that an old-warhorse civil rights organization has something to offer them.
"I'm excited about this," Kobi Little, a 24-year-old Baltimore NAACP activist, said yesterday. "The congressman will bring integrity to the organization. He will surround himself with thinkers and with organizers."
Mr. Mfume said his goals were to restore the group's fiscal integrity and expand its membership, increase blacks' political power by energizing voters, stress "individual responsibility and a return to values," and set the stage for African-American entrepreneurship.
Mr. Mfume would be the eighth person in the 86-year history of the NAACP to hold the job that has traditionally been called executive director.
In the 72 years before Dr. Chavis' 16-month tenure, the job was held by only four men: James Weldon Johnson (1921-1930), Walter White (1930-1955), Roy Wilkins (1955-1977), and the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks (1977-1993).
The naming of Mr. Mfume appears to cement the NAACP's presence in Baltimore, to which it moved from New York in 1986. The organization's headquarters are in Northwest Baltimore's Seton Business Park.
Kweisi Mfume and the NAACP
May 1986: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People moves its headquarters from New York to Baltimore.
Nov. 1986: Kweisi Mfume is elected to Congress from a district that now includes much of Baltimore and part of western Baltimore County.
Dec. 1992: Mr. Mfume is elected chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, a position he holds for two years.
April 1993: The Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is named executive director of the NAACP, succeeding the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks.
Sept. 1993: Mr. Mfume announces that the Black Caucus will enter a "sacred covenant" with both the NAACP and Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam to try to improve the lives of African-Americans.
Aug. 1994: The NAACP board fires Dr. Chavis after discovering that he secretly committed the organization's money to pay a former aide who had accused him of sexual harassment.
Oct. 1994: NAACP Chairman William F. Gibson is accused of "double-dipping" thousands of dollars in expense reimbursements from the NAACP, which was nearly $4 million in debt.
Feb. 1995: By a single vote, Myrlie Evers-Williams defeats Dr. Gibson for the NAACP chairmanship in a board election.
May. 1995: The NAACP board names a search committee to find a successor to Dr. Chavis.
Dec. 1995: Rep. Kweisi Mfume is chosen to head the NAACP and says he will leave Congress in mid-February.