"This is a new day begun," he told 4,000 NAACP activists, echoing the theme of the 87th annual convention. "I will fight until hell freezes over not to let anything divide us any longer. We are family."
Mfume, who became NAACP president in February after two years of turmoil within the nation's largest civil rights group, gave a 30-minute speech that seemed intended to inspire more than inform.
Unlike his two most recent predecessors, Mfume is not a preacher, but he showed that he was at home in the church revival-like atmosphere that often envelops NAACP gatherings.
"I miss the back and forth of debate. I miss mixing it up with folks on the other side of the aisle," the former congressman from Baltimore said of his decision to end a 10-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives. "But I have found a better place to be. It is all right to come back home to the NAACP."
Mfume brought the audience to its feet when he pledged that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People would "fight discrimination, not each other."
He brushed off a Sunday night demonstration by Midwestern delegates angry at the relocation of the Detroit regional office to Baltimore headquarters as the work of those who "want to go back to the old days and the old ways. No more days like that," he vowed.
As if to link himself with a past untainted by scandal, Mfume called former Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks, who headed the NAACP from 1977 to 1993, to the podium. He stood, hand in hand and arms upraised, with Hooks and Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams.
Mfume's immediate predecessor, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., who was fired as NAACP leader in 1994 after 16 months on the job, is not at the convention.
Chavis was dismissed after making a secret deal to pay up to $332,400 in NAACP funds to a former aide who accused him of sexual harassment. A jury ruled last month that the NAACP is not liable for the settlement.
Like Chavis, however, Mfume, 47, is making bringing young blacks into the civil rights group a priority.
Mfume touched on issues of importance to the NAACP: black voter education, economic advancement, court rulings on affirmative action and majority-black congressional districts, and a racial climate in which "tolerance has become a dirty word."
Contending that racism has become more subtle but has not disappeared, he said: "Jim Crow Sr. is dead, but Jim Crow Jr. is alive and well. He likes to discriminate but he gets his joy from watching us lynch ourselves."
Civil rights veteran Julian Bond, an NAACP board member, said Mfume gave "a great speech. He hit all the right notes and tones. He said you can dissent, but please let's get on with business."
Cornel West, a Harvard philosopher and author, called the speech "absolutely powerful."
But Carl L. Breeding, who as president of the Michigan NAACP protested the relocation of the Detroit office, said: "If we are family, families take care of family members. If it's a new day, he's got to do things in a new way."
Mfume told a news conference that he would meet with Midwestern delegates today.
While denying the protest was a test of his authority, he said: "The regional office is run by the national administration. Period. No one else."
Mfume also said that proposals to reduce the size of the 64-member board -- which is almost twice as large as the NAACP national staff -- were not likely to prosper, although he made clear he would welcome reform.
"Frederick Douglass said, 'Power concedes nothing without a demand,' " Mfume said. "I'm sure there will have to be other demands in that regard. In time, I hope the board comes to grips with the issue."
Pub Date: 7/09/96