A quiet but effective first year Leader: Kweisi Mfume spent much of his first year as NAACP president settling debts. Now he's ready for activism.


In his first year on the job, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume has worked to vanquish a $3.2 million debt, modernize a creaky but proud institution, restore a good name tarnished by mismanagement and scandal, and squeeze in a little civil rights work.

The 48-year-old former congressman from Baltimore has won high marks -- amid some grumbling -- from NAACP activists. But some analysts outside the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People say the 88-year-old organization is missing in action on major battles.

Now for the hard part.

His honeymoon ending, Mfume must show this year that a revived NAACP can regain its place as the nation's premier civil rights group, activists and analysts say. Mfume says the NAACP is up to the task.

"This year is different. You're going to see legislative thrusts that are NAACP initiatives. I won't say a 'Contract with America,' but it will be something that defines us, separate and apart, on several major issues," Mfume said in an interview at NAACP headquarters in Northwest Baltimore.

"We may be more active than people will want," he said. "Last year was a very unusual year: get to know the organization, learn the history, know all the people, understand the operation, raise money, clear up the debt, put in controls, establish a new mission. It left little time for anything except to react when situations came up."

Mfume is accustomed to a higher profile than he assumed in 1996. The NAACP hired him in part because he achieved national stature as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (1992-1994). He is the telegenic host of a Saturday morning public-affairs program on WBAL-TV. His autobiography, "No Free Ride: From the Mean Streets to the Mainstream," published last year, is due out in paperback in June.

He says he won't hesitate to make use of the NAACP presidency's "bully pulpit," even though some NAACP rank and file were displeased when he called classroom use of "ebonics" a "cruel joke" on black students or when he chided the Maryland NAACP for a planned protest against a school visit by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

"I am not somebody who sticks my hand up in the air to see which way the wind is blowing," he said. "If anybody thinks on major issues that it is the role of the president to go check what all the branches feel about an issue before rendering an opinion, then that's not going to happen with me. They've just got the wrong person if that's the case."

Mfume, who will address the NAACP annual meeting in New York on Saturday, almost a year after he took the $200,000-a-year job, outlined plans for this year:

Focus NAACP efforts on five broad areas: civil rights enforcement, voter empowerment, educational excellence, economic development and youth recruitment.

Increase the size of the depleted national staff by half. He expects to hire 18 to 20 employees to work on political mobilization, litigation, education, health, membership and servicing the NAACP's 1,700 branches.

Begin a five-year drive to build a $50 million endowment. He said zTC the NAACP would put $500,000 into the fund from a $2 million surplus accrued in austere 1996. He said the Prince Hall Masons of Maryland have already pledged $150,000.

Double the NAACP's number of youth and college chapters to 140 and start a "street outreach ministry," with a $100,000 grant from the Steven Spielberg Foundation.

Mfume said that under his leadership the NAACP would issue report cards on members of Congress and possibly state legislators; negotiate with Wall Street to provide capital for to black-owned "microenterprise"; revive its dormant magazine, the Crisis, as a center of black thought, and venture into selected communities to support grass-roots action.

Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland College Park political scientist, said Mfume must quickly show that the NAACP can use both quiet diplomacy and mass demonstrations to sway policy on issues such as welfare reform and affirmative action in Washington and state capitals.

Walters said Mfume was too moderate last year.

In November, when Texaco Inc. was under fire for discriminatory, tape-recorded remarks made by top executives, Mfume gave the company 30 days to devise a diversity plan or face a stock-divestiture campaign. The same day, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson called for an immediate boycott. When Texaco unveiled its plan about a month later, Jackson got most of the credit.

"We don't need another Urban League," said Walters, referring to the New York-based civil rights group known for its strong corporate ties. "We need an organization that can do what Jesse has been doing -- mobilize people, bring pressure to bear, things the NAACP has always stood for."

'Principled moderate'

But Brian W. Jones, president of the Center for New Black Leadership, a conservative group, said Mfume has emerged as a "principled moderate" who "appeals to the vast middle of the black community and to mainstream America generally."

Mfume said he wasn't trying to move the NAACP to the center, but "back to plain sense."

He stood by his handling of the Texaco case as "fair" and said he had conferred frequently with Jackson. He said the boycott gained useful publicity but would have had little long-term impact on a company with Texaco's vast cash reserves.

"I come out of an institution where you negotiate. Maybe that's my downfall," said Mfume, who spent a decade in Congress after seven years on the Baltimore City Council.

Michael Meyers, leader of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, complained that the NAACP has been "virtually invisible" under Mfume. He said Mfume frittered away his first year, "when you have media attention, when the membership focuses on your leadership."

"The organization has in effect retired its debt only by significantly reducing its program and its staff," he said. Mfume fired 15 employees in March; one 27-year veteran has sued the NAACP for sex and age discrimination.

But Sonia R. Jarvis, a professor in George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, said Mfume had wisely concentrated on financial stability. "So much of the focus was on 'Will the NAACP survive?' That question has been answered: Yes, it will," she said.

Now, Jarvis said, Mfume must mobilize the NAACP membership to fight battles in state capitals and city halls as Washington returns power to states and localities.

NAACP activists say Mfume is getting the venerable organization back in fighting trim. Mandatory training sessions for officers are being held across the country. NAACP branches must fill out a new, 14-page financial report. The NAACP is on the Internet.

Working with branches

But, beyond Baltimore headquarters, the NAACP is almost entirely a tenuously funded, volunteer organization. Local leadership disputes drain some branches' energy. Keeping local activists motivated and on the same page is a tall order for a short-staffed national office.

"Most branches are antiquated; most are in disarray," said Robbin Ware, recently elected president of the 800-member Sacramento, Calif., branch. "If [Mfume] has inherited anything remotely resembling the mess here, it's a wonder he's retained his sanity."

Mfume is in demand. He said he made 71 trips last year (some combining his book tour with NAACP business). But 1,700 branches seek him as a fund-raiser.

When Mfume spoke to 1,200 people at a St. Louis banquet in October, "it was one of the largest dinners we've had," said Charles Mischeaux, St. Louis branch president. "He made a great speech, and it got a lot of news and TV coverage. We felt rejuvenated and felt we were moving forward."

But Hanley Norment, president of the Maryland NAACP, who clashed with Mfume over plans to protest against Thomas, said some NAACP members are upset about Mfume's "aloofness in visiting and paying attention to local and state units."

Joe Madison, a Washington radio talk-show host and NAACP national board member, said Mfume needs to "recognize the role that volunteers play," from NAACP Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams, who set the association on the road to fiscal health after her election two years ago, to the branch president in Lower Tallapossa County, Ala.

"I think what Mr. Mfume should do from this point on is start taking the advice of some senior NAACP officials, both on the staff and on the board," he said.

Mfume said his administration would "work with branches and seek to empower them, but it is also an administration that is not going to stand for a lot of foolishness," he said, citing as examples misappropriation of funds and exclusion of young people.

The NAACP president has been frustrated at times by the pace of reform in what he calls a "network of families" -- branches, youth councils, college chapters, state conferences and regions, all under a 64-member board.

"That is a very large family and the ability to communicate to that family is not an innate quality. It is a learned behavior," Mfume said.

"I tried to deliberately say when I came on board, don't look for me running around the country beating my chest and proclaiming a new day," he said. "I don't know if people realize the state of this association a year ago; I don't think they do. But that required time."

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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