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National Icon-in-the-Making?

Kweisi Mfume's Job is to Breathe New Life Into the NAACP. If He Does, Better Tell Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson to Make Room.

July 21, 1996|Gregg Zoroya | Gregg Zoroya is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia

The New York Hilton's teak-paneled Grand Ballroom erupts with gospel music. Bodies are jostling toward the stage, where a man has just finished speaking. Kweisi Mfume bends at the waist, reaching toward outstretched hands, beaming and mouthing thanks. In a few hours he will be formally voted into office as the next president and chief executive of the NAACP. But at this moment, acknowledging the arms thrust plaintively toward him, he is like the hub of a wheel with countless spokes.

On this Saturday morning in February, the NAACP is eager to be reborn, to rise from the organizational turmoil and debt that has savaged the once-proud civil rights group. In his first major address to members, Mfume feeds a crowd starving for renewal with his rich oratory. "From this point on," he tells them, "when they write against the backdrop of history, they will say that the NAACP found itself in New York. It dusted itself off and began a new and engaging challenge."

As he stirs the crowd, Mfume--his adopted name is pronounced Kwah-EE-see Oom-FOO-may, Swahili for "conquering son of kings"--is once again reinventing himself. For Mfume, at 47, there had been so many new beginnings--orphaned street thug turned honors graduate; profligate father to proud patriarch of a "non-traditional family"; from Frizzell "Peewee" Gray to Kweisi Mfume; from radio personality to politician, from congressman to civil rights leader.

The hundreds of members of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People in the hotel ballroom are finding it difficult to rise above the past two years of disheartening scandal. Previous executive director Benjamin F. Chavis was fired after paying hush money to a woman claiming sexual harassment. Former board chairman William Gibson was unseated after allegedly pampering himself with $112,000 in NAACP money. Mismanagement drove the group near bankruptcy, with a $4.7 million debt.

Some credibility was restored, and a margin of debt eliminated after the election last year of board chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of the slain civil rights activist. But in the wake of scandal are questions about whether the NAACP matters anymore and what remains of a vision that once changed a nation. The organization is riven by bickering and dissension; its glory days of Thurgood Marshall, Medger Evers and influential lobbyist Clarence Mitchell, the so-called 101st senator, seemed seem nothing but a fading memory.

The air crackles with anxiety in the ballroom. Outgoing president Rupert Richardson tries to ease it by comparing the NAACP to the pink Eveready Bunny, both "still going." The effort falls flat. Factional cross-currents flood the room. Some, like board member John J. Mance of Glendale, are die-hard supporters of Gibson and mentally exhausted by the infighting. Those ever loyal to Evers-Williams chant, "Myrlie, Myrlie" as she enters the room. Member Michael Meyers loudly demands that her record be debated before a routine vote approving her tenure so far. Someone yells: "Go home, Mike." A minor revolt breaks out over the seating of new board members.

Mfume arrives late and quietly takes his seat at the dais of the room where John F. Kennedy made one of his last public appearances and Ronald Reagan declared his candidacy for president. Mfume is a freeze-frame in the midst of chaos. His mind is racing. He feels the disarray in the room. On his agenda: more financial belt-tightening, staff retrenchment, vital generational changes. But more than anything, he must convey his mandate for pulling them back together as a family.

Stepping to the lectern, a new face to old warriors, Mfume hits each core issue. When he launches into rededicating the organization's fight against intolerance, Mfume feels as if he is almost levitating over his notes. This is good. After years of public speaking, first as Baltimore city councilman and later as U.S. representative and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Mfume can sense when he is bonding with his audience. The moment takes over and the words gush forth, the voice rises and falls, phrases punctuated by revival-style responses from the crowd in preacherlike rhythm.

"Jim Crow is dead. But Jim Crow Jr. is alive and well. Unlike his father ("All right!" someone calls out), who liked to segregate ("All right!) and discriminate ("Uh, huh!") and got joy from our lynching ("All right!"), Jim Crow Jr. is different. ("OK!") Oh yeah, he likes to discriminate and he still likes to segregate because it's in his genes. ("Oh, yeah!") But he gets his joy watching us lynch ourselves. ("Oh yeah," and the applause thunders.) So let me just say that there will be those in the NAACP who will counsel us to be silent in this reactionary time. ("Well?") They will whisper in your ear to look the other way ("Yes!") and hope for the best. ("Yes, yes!") I refuse to stand mute when liberty is denied. ("Yeah!")

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