NEW YORK -- Challenging critics to join him, Kweisi Mfume vowed yesterday to lead a financially strengthened NAACP this year in defending affirmative action, shaping welfare reform and garnering capital for black-owned businesses.
"Let the word go out that last year was a good year, but you ain't seen nothing yet," the NAACP president said, rousing 300 activists to sing a chorus of amens at the end of his speech to the civil rights group's annual meeting.
Acknowledged that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had begun considering moving its headquarters from Northwest Baltimore's Seton Business Park if remodeling costs there prove too high. He said the NAACP would not leave Baltimore.
Embraced Hanley Norment, Maryland NAACP president, in an attempt to calm a dispute over the state group's plans to protest a speech by Justice Clarence Thomas on the Eastern Shore. Mfume had criticized the move as an attack on freedom of speech.
Announced that actress Halle Berry would lend her name to a youth-oriented membership drive and that the NAACP would mount a 10-city bus tour to encourage young blacks to "respect yourself, stop the killing and increase the love."
Released figures showing that the NAACP raised $3.7 million more than it spent in 1996, wiping out its debt and paving the way for modest increases in staff and programs this year.
Mfume said the NAACP would mobilize its network of 1,700 branches to do the kind of civil rights work that has been its hallmark -- influencing legislation. He said the NAACP's geographical reach would be important as battles over getting welfare recipients into the work force and over curbing preferences for minorities and women move from Washington to state capitals.
He said he would lobby the White House and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi to ensure that Alexis Herman, President Clinton's nominee for labor secretary, "has a chance to move forward."
He said he did not want Clinton to withdraw the nomination as the president did in his first term with Loni Guinier, who was to be the Justice Department civil rights chief. Like Guinier, Herman is a black woman.
Mfume also pledged to go beyond the NAACP's traditional role to enlist financial institutions to make capital available to black entrepreneurs.
"We can't just be boxed into a civil rights corner," he said. "The civil rights of our people depend too much on their need and ability to empower themselves economically."
In a spirited, unusually folksy talk that won over the crowd, Mfume took on critics who said that the civil rights group had been almost invisible last year and NAACP activists who believed that he was too aloof and inaccessible.
Noting that he made 71 trips around the country last year, Mfume said: "I heard you and I became better because of what you said." He pledged to improve communication with local NAACP leaders.
Mfume referred to the organization as a family and suggested it adopt an internal 11th commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of another member of the NAACP."
But, a little later, he mocked Michael Meyers, leader of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and an Mfume critic, as being "more quoted than the chairman," Myrlie Evers-Williams, and challenged him to "stand with us."
Some members hooted at Meyers, who sat quietly in the audience as a television crew spotlighted him.
Mfume told reporters later that he picked on Meyers "in jest" and professed not to be troubled by criticism. He served 17 years as an elected official before taking the $200,000-a-year NAACP job a year ago. He said NAACP members should feel free to register their dissent.
Meyers, a gadfly who criticized former NAACP leaders Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. and William F. Gibson before it was popular to do so, said he would keep speaking out. He derided Mfume's speech as a "sermon," and said, "The NAACP is a black hole that is sucking up money."
Joe Madison, a Washington radio talk-show host and NAACP board member, said he believed Mfume's address showed that he knew he needed to shore up his rank-and-file support.
"I think he's heard the people. I think he will start making some adjustments that will benefit him and the organization," Madison said.
The NAACP has been based in Baltimore since 1986, when it left New York and moved into a building off Northern Parkway formerly owned by a Catholic religious order.
Treasurer Francisco L. Borges said the NAACP needed to "take a very hard look at the long-term future of the building," which he said "will require significant capital expenditures."
The building, which has been largely empty as cuts have reduced NAACP staff by about half in this decade, needs repairs to major components such as the roof and the boiler, officials said. Its long hallways are a bit dingy, and it has limited meeting space for large groups.
Mfume said the NAACP had entered preliminary discussions with the office of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke about possible relocation or financial assistance in improving the Seton Business Park site. Baltimore and Maryland lured the NAACP to the city with incentives that would allow the group to own its present building outright by 2001.
"We would have to assess whether it's economically better to stay there or go somewhere else," he said in an interview. "We're not leaving the city."
"This is a very slow process. We're not rushing to make any determinations or judgments," Mfume said.
Madison said no proposals had been brought to the NAACP board, nor had there been any discussion of leaving Baltimore.
"Baltimore is a great location," he said. "The city of Baltimore has been very good to us. There is no move afoot."
City officials could not be reached for comment about the possibility of a move by the NAACP.
Madison added that the NAACP headquarters needed improvement because "that building not only represents the NAACP, it represents black America. It should be an icon everyone can be proud of."
Pub Date: 2/16/97