In a sweeping, impassioned speech, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume called on Howard County Democrats last night to heed "a higher calling than our friends in the other party" in fighting for justice through political activism.
"I have come to Howard County to say that I have not given up on the American idea or on the American possibility," Mfume told party activists gathered in Columbia. "And I ask that you not give up also."
His speech was the featured event at last night's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner at the Columbia Inn. The dinner is the biggest annual fund-raiser for local Democrats, who are still struggling to recover from a string of defeats in the 1990s that cost them control of Howard County.
Organizers expected to raise between $6,000 and $10,000 from the 180 tickets -- sold for $50 each -- and a silent auction of political memorabilia.
Several Democrats at the dinner said they came mainly to hear Mfume, a former congressman from Baltimore who took over the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in February 1996.
Mfume invoked the unfulfilled dream of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the alleged terrorism of Timothy McVeigh -- on trial in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City -- as he warned of "a national scourge of insensitivity and violence."
"Hate crimes, hate speech, hate radio and hate groups are attempting to divide our nation," Mfume said. "So our challenge as Democrats is to accept the fact that we must find a different road to take and not to be weary about it."
Mfume also renewed charges, first made more than a month ago, that Army investigators were overzealous in trying to prove sexual misconduct by African-American drill sergeants who had sex mainly with white trainees at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"Fine women came forward in a place called Aberdeen to tell their story of coercion by Army investigators so hell-bent on trying to find somebody guilty of something that they were prepared to change consensual sex into charges of rape. We must speak up," he said.
The central defendant in that investigation, Staff Sgt. Delmar G. Simpson, was convicted this week of raping six trainees. He faces a possible sentence of life in prison.
But the heart of Mfume's speech was his call for Democrats to recommit themselves to the mission of social justice.
"Truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder but a howling reproach," Mfume told the crowd. "What Moses brought from the mountain were not the 10 suggestions."
As he finished to a standing ovation, Carole Fisher, chairwoman of Howard's Democratic Central Committee, gently reminded the crowd of the more mundane goals of the gathering: "I look around the room and see a lot of the components of victory in 1998."
But party leaders also privately lamented their lack of a clear leader to run for county executive in 1998.
Councilman C. Vernon Gray -- an east Columbia Democrat who did not attend last night's dinner because of a scheduling conflict -- and state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer of Columbia have been mentioned as potential candidates. But sources close to Kasemeyer say he is leaning against running.
Gray has his sights set on becoming vice president of the National Association of Counties (NACo), an influential lobbying bTC group. But if he wins that election this summer, Gray may skip the race for county executive because the NACo job is open only to current county officials. A loss in the race for county executive would force him to resign from NACo as well.
Pub Date: 5/01/97