From street hustler to president of NAACP Autobiography traces Mfume's journey to success

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In his forthcoming autobiography, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume describes a street-corner "epiphany" one summer night in 1971 that began his transformation from an aimless punk in West Baltimore to one of the most influential black leaders in America.

It happened at Laurens and Division streets, a corner where wine-swilling and dice-rolling were common, where he "first saw a cop kill somebody in cold blood," Mfume writes in "No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets to the Mainstream" (One World/Ballantine Books, $25), to be published Aug. 19. The Sun was provided a copy of the manuscript.

Mfume, who drifted into street life and petty crime after his mother died in 1965, writes that he put on a red silk shirt that evening in 1971 and headed to "the corner I loved": "Maybe I'd smoke some weed, drink some brew, and if my hand was hot, make a little money as well."

Instead, as the corner craps game went on, he felt enveloped by a bone-deep chill and watched as his mother's face gradually appeared in a cloud of golden light, "burning away everything I'd done to dull the pain of her loss, the pain of my present life," he writes.

"Another wave of energy flooded through my body, filling me with the most perfect peace I have ever known. I felt newborn, vulnerable -- completely open to the possibilities that lay within me. I felt forgiven. In this one powerful moment I knew I had been completely transformed."

Mfume's epiphany is the pivotal scene in the 373-page autobiography, for which Mfume and co-author Ron Stodghill II of Business Week received a $250,000 advance. It traces the 47-year-old former congressman's life from the black enclave in Baltimore County where he was born, to Capitol Hill -- and finally his ascension in February to the helm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation's largest civil rights group.

The book fleshes out an Mfume story already familiar to many Baltimoreans: A misguided young man who quit school and fathered five children out of wedlock straightens himself out, graduates from Morgan State University with honors, becomes a radio personality, wins election to the City Council by three votes, slowly discovers the art of political compromise and becomes a congressman.

As "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" did a generation before, "No Free Ride" depicts a street hustler who undergoes a spiritual and political awakening, reinventing himself under a new name as a black leader. A great-aunt who visited Ghana brought him the name Kweisi Mfume (pronounced kwah-EE-see oom-FOO-may), which means "conquering son of kings."

Mfume said in an interview that he hopes his story will inspire "everyone who still wants to believe that the impossible is still possible. I really think my story is the American story because it only could have happened here, both good and bad. The ability to transform and change and re-create yourself and have this renaissance is something that is almost American in nature.

"I really hope young people read it more than anybody else. What I really want to say to them is that it's not how you start in life that counts, but how you finish," he said. "The triumph of the human spirit is the one single aspect of this book that I think and hope will connect with all people."

Born Frizzell Gerard Tate in 1948 and known as Pee Wee, he was raised in Turners Station by Mary Elizabeth Willis Gray, an assembly line worker and domestic, and Clifton Gray, a tractor-trailer driver who he later learned was not his biological father. (His mother changed his name to Gray when he started school, Mfume says.) Pee Wee adored his mother and despised Gray, who treated him cruelly. A Little League coach and drum corps leader became substitute father figures.

It is a story filled with pathos and many cinematic moments (Mfume reports "some initial interest" from Hollywood, but no offers yet):

At five, he survives a high fever after his mother, using a remedy handed down from slavery, ties sliced raw potatoes to his neck and joints with cotton rags. At 11, he stops his stepfather from beating his mother by pulling a steak knife on him. ("For the first time in my life I wanted to cut his heart out, and he knew it.")

At 13, after his stepfather abandoned them and the family moved to West Baltimore, he sneaks out of his house and into the 5th Regiment Armory to watch President John F. Kennedy give a speech. At 14, he loses his virginity in an orgy with three prostitutes who lived in a McCulloh Street rowhouse. ("These women had skin brown and smooth as a Hershey bar, and sex appeal that lit the whole street on fire.")

At 16, his mother dies in his arms of cancer. ("Her mouth fell open, and she let out a strange gasping sound and fell over into my arms. I had never heard a sound like that before and have never heard one since. The dark room suddenly seemed to be filled with the soft sound of wings.")

That night, Mfume writes, a family friend he had known as "Mr. Charles" disclosed that he was his father. "Mr. Charles" turned out to be Rufus B. "Rip" Tate Jr., a Pennsylvania Avenue heroin dealer who had always treated young Pee Wee like a son.

Mfume says he employed "less poetic license than there could have been" in telling his story. "I deliberately in the dialogue didn't take liberties. I focused on things riveted in my mind and only used those," he said.

His final confrontation with his hated stepfather has become more dramatic in this telling. In 1986, it was reported that Mfume, at 21, was convicted of a misdemeanor assault charge and ordered to pay $10 in court costs for threatening to kill Clifton Gray for hitting Mfume's sister. "It was just an argument where I told him never to do that again," Mfume said then.

In the book, Mfume says he grabbed his .32-caliber revolver, raced to Gray's house with a friend, broke the front and rear windshields of his stepfather's car, and fired a couple of rounds up the stairs in Gray's direction before fleeing as police sirens drew near.

"I am telling much more about that incident because I think I have a responsibility to," Mfume said in the interview. He said young people should take his story as a warning not to make his mistakes -- "sexual promiscuity, low self-esteem, dropping out of school, feeling victimized."

Mfume fathered five sons out of wedlock -- which became an issue in his 1986 congressional campaign -- during this same chaotic period. They were born to four women between May 1968 and January 1970 (two in that month alone). Mfume remains close to his sons.

After the 1968 riots that devastated many inner-city neighborhoods, Mfume writes that he met Parren J. Mitchell, the man he would later succeed in Congress. According to "No Free Ride," Mfume flashed the handgun in his belt and talked trash to Mitchell: "My problem is that you or nobody else can't do nothin' to change things for black people. And I don't like you comin' around here lyin' and actin' like you can."

But he said he later volunteered in Mitchell's campaign, his first entry into politics.

After his epiphany, Mfume got his GED, became a Community College of Baltimore student leader, entered Morgan State, sold life insurance and launched a radio career, first at WEBB and then as program director of Morgan's new WEAA-FM. He married Linda Shields in 1972; they divorced three years later.

He was swept up in the black militancy of the early 1970s. "I didn't just wear a bush, I was a bush that burned with revolutionary fervor, from the wildfires of racism and prejudice that smoldered around me," he writes.

Mfume credits Raymond V. Haysbert, president of Parks Sausage Co., with shaping him as an electable City Council candidate. He writes that Haysbert told him to trim his bush, take off his jewelry, develop a list of 10 issues, and stick to dark suits and white shirts -- which he does to this day.

In chronicling Mfume's political career, "No Free Ride" sticks close to the public record. He was elected to the City Council in 1979 and to Congress in 1986.

"This is not a kiss-and-tell Washington memoir," he said. "I believe in keeping doors open and not burning bridges because you never know when you have to go back through or back across."

His political highlight was clearly two years as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which made him a national player and put him on a first-name basis with world leaders like Nelson Mandela. He clashed with President Clinton on Haiti policy and fTC Lani Guinier's abortive nomination as the government's top civil rights official.

Mfume expresses no regrets in the book for having declared a "sacred covenant" in 1993 between the caucus and Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. The covenant blew up in his face after a Farrakhan aide made an anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic speech.

He writes that in trying to build black unity, he was not endorsing all of Farrakhan's positions. While Jewish groups and others argued that he was legitimizing Farrakhan, he says, "Farrakhan was already legitimate in the black community, whether we wanted him to be or not. All Americans came to recognize as much on Oct. 16, 1995," the day of the Million Man March.

Mfume, who is single and dates the actress Lynn Whitfield, reveals little of his present personal life.

"There are aspects that should be private," he said. "It allows us a sense of personhood when we still have moments, parts of our lives that are ours and our family's, not the public's."

Kweisi Mfume will sign copies of "No Free Ride" at 6: 30 p.m. Aug. 20 at Waldenbooks in Security Square Mall.

Pub Date: 8/09/96

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