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NAACP finds new energy under Mfume's leadership

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Kweisi Mfume adopted a West African name 30 years ago, he chose Swahili words that evoked a warrior prince. Today, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People embrace him as their "conquering son of kings" - and for good reason.

Mfume, the president and chief executive officer of the NAACP, has overseen the revitalization of the venerable civil rights organization. The "new" NAACP is a financially sound organization, a historic institution energized by young faces, an association updating its civil rights agenda for the 21st century.

From the chairman of the board to a 15-year-old activist, NAACP conventioneers and others cite Mfume's dynamic personality, political acumen and compassionate leadership style in the turnabout in the country's oldest civil rights organization, which had been beset by debt, scandal and mismanagement.

But the talk isn't only about his stewardship during the past 4 1/2 years.

NAACP members rave about the Baltimore native's gentle charm and fiery spirit. They appreciate his personal struggle, a life-transforming journey from a streetwise punk named Frizzell Gray to the charismatic Congressional Black Caucus chairman with the hard-to-pronounce name. They clamor for photographs with him and enjoy his e-mail.

"He's done wonderfully. We like him. We want him to stay," said Julian Bond, the eloquent civil rights veteran and former Georgia legislator who is now chairman of the NAACP board.

Mfume's supporters - and they are many -- shudder at the thought that he might not be their president after his contract expires next February.

"I don't think anybody is looking for him to go anywhere," said LaKeitha J. Daniels, a 20-year-old NAACP board member from Miami. "He has brought us so much stability."

Nowhere was Mfume more on display than here this week at the organization's annual convention. Thousands of delegates from across the country arrived for the weeklong celebrations, workshops, awards ceremonies and closed-door business meetings.

Mfume, 51, seemed to be everywhere.

He hosted the president and first lady and the three candidates vying for the White House when they came to address members. He greeted prize-winning teen artists at a hotel fete and recruited party-goers at a downtown nightclub. He had breakfast with Bank of America executives and praised their commitment to minority lending, days after he warned that the banking industry would be the next NAACP boycott target.

And, he made time to do a little one-on-one counseling. At a luncheon for labor leaders, Mfume stepped down from a dais crowded with prominent business people to confer with Daniels and Kimberly Bills, two college students on the NAACP board.

Mfume encouraged the women to consider the breadth of experience in the room, the potential allies in the future. Then he returned to the dais. "I thought the moment was pregnant with opportunity," Mfume said later.

"He shows us a lot of attention," said Bills, 20, of Baltimore, referring to the board's seven youth members. "He knows how to serve his constituents and we are his constituents."

"He's always approachable," added Daniels, who starts Tulane University Law School this fall. "We e-mail each other back and forth. He has made it so we're not afraid to tell him exactly what we think."

When former board Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams and others persuaded Mfume to leave his secure seat in Congress for NAACP headquarters in Seton Business Park, the organization had been leaderless for 15 months.

Mfume reorganized the national staff. He pursued corporate donations to retire the NAACP debt, which Williams had reduced to $3.2 million. He crisscrossed the country, visiting local branches. He spearheaded a membership dues increase, money the national relies on.

He selected his targets to revitalize the group's civil rights agenda - the dearth of African Americans in television programming, the Confederate battle flag's 38-year perch on the South Carolina Statehouse, the hotel industry's treatment of black guests, the costs of gun violence.

With the support of the board led now by Bond - who said members refer to him and Mfume as "the twin towers" - Mfume's strategy appears to have paid off.

Bond said Mfume quickly grasped the culture of this diverse group, whose 1,700 branches rely mainly on volunteers. At formal occasions, for example, organ music underscores Mfume's speeches, as is customary in black churches during a sermon.

"Kweisi can relate to people from Yale to jail, eye to eye, toe to toe, with respect," said Robert Ingram, a Baltimore public relations executive who has followed Mfume's career since his days on the Baltimore City Council.

"That's a rare individual. All too often brothers like him in suits aren't respected by some in the (African American) community who haven't fared so well," Ingram said.

Mfume dines with celebrities. His calls to the White House get returned. But, if his phone rings late at night, he is likely to answer it.

Linda Plummer, head of the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP, remembers one such conversation. Plummer was frustrated with federal officials in her branch's fight to improve police practices in Montgomery County.

"I told him, 'I'm sick of this. I'm getting 35 complaints a day," recalled Plummer. "He told me, 'Did Rosa Parks quit?'"

After a three-year struggle with the police department over racial profiling, the Montgomery County chapter won an agreement, brokered by the Justice Department, for police to change its practices.

"I have a personal relationship with [Mfume] that has empowered me," said Plummer, who has headed the Montgomery County branch for six years. "He makes me jump out of bed [in the morning]."

Mfume inspires young people, too.

"He was a troubled teen in Baltimore City and he came out on top," said Erica Robinson, a 15-year-old from Woodlawn, as she and a group of friends rushed to an NAACP gospel concert. "We need a great leader to follow. We're next."

Mfume grew up in Turner's Station, an all-black enclave in eastern Baltimore County, then later in West Baltimore. Abandoned by his stepfather, his mother dead from cancer by the time he was 16, Mfume dropped out of school, picked up odd jobs, and hung out with fast crowd. He fathered five sons by four women before he was 20, and, in his words, "on my way to hell in a handbasket."

Somehow, he stopped the slide. He changed his name, hit the books and began his climb from obscurity. It is a story that has appealed to young people.

Although the membership of the NAACP hovers at 500,000, the enrollment of blacks under 30 has risen. Youth chapters increased from 45 to 142 under Mfume's tenure, according to John White, a NAACP spokesman.

"He's brought a positiveness and structure that has moved us forward," said Eugene Bryant Sr., a federal employee who heads the Mississippi state NAACP chapter.

There are occasional gripes, though rarely in public.

Three years ago, Mfume's announcement of a boycott of 10 hotel chains caught some board members by surprise, including two who were guests at hotels cited in the action. This week, at a meeting of branch operations, several NAACP members questioned hiring practices at headquarters. And the rank-and-file would like to see more of Mfume, said board member Jeannetta Williams of Salt Lake City.

"The only way he could get out more is to clone him," said Williams, "and then we'd have to clone him three or four times."

Some outside the organization have questioned Mfume's choice of initiatives - the Confederate battle flag, television diversity , hotel services for blacks - and their benefit to the majority of African Americans who have yet to achieve parity in employment, education and housing.

"In many ways those issues are diversionary," said Robert C. Smith, a San Francisco State University political scientist researching the viability of NAACP chapters.

"Why is it that even in times of unprecedented prosperity, blacks can't share in it? That should have been more of their focus than Hollywood," Smith said.

But some Mfume supporters argue that the underrepresentation of blacks in the media influences behavior beyond Hollywood.

"You tend to get views that often promote biases that are institutional and historical," said Ingram, the Baltimore public relations executive.

And the South Carolina flag controversy? When first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton talked about it during her convention address this week, the audience of more than 1,000 rose to its feet and cheered.

John Bracey, a University of Massachusetts professor who is compiling a history of the NAACP, said Mfume's fight to increase opportunities for blacks in Hollywood is in step with the traditions of the 91-year-old institution. It fought the racist portrayal of blacks in D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," the clownish characterizations in the television show "Amos 'n' Andy," the discriminatory practices against black band leaders in World War II, he said.

What sets Mfume apart from his predecessors is his pedigree, said Bracey. He is the first leader of the NAACP not to come from the church or academia.

"He is actually the first to come from the black lower class ... the first generation that made it into the middle class and became a leader," said Bracey.

With his intellect and political pedigree, Mfume could have left Congress for high-powered jobs in the private sector.

"He could have sat there with his name on the door and people would have given him money," Bracey said. "Kweisi didn't go that route. He remembered where he came from."

Mfume, by virtue of his NAACP position, has been described as the president of black America. Last year, prominent African Americans in Baltimore tried to draft him for mayor. He declined.

But the invitation demonstrated his political heft.

Mfume says he hasn't had time to think about his contract or his future plans. He's been too focused on the convention. "It's been a good 4 1/2 years," he said.

When Mfume contemplates his tenure, he doesn't recall the administrative successes or policy initiatives. He remembers the people all over America - "the nameless, faceless people out there in the communities and towns" - who have devoted themselves to the NAACP and the civil rights struggle.

"It makes me recognize that if there was any doubt at all that I did the right thing [by taking the NAACP job], clearly it was," he said.

Sun staff writer Laurie Willis contributed to this article.

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