- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 30, 2004

BALTIMORE — Kweisi Mfume, the man who took the NAACP from rags to riches during his nine-year tenure as its president, stepped down yesterday, citing a commitment to family and a need for a “new challenge.”

“Nine years ago, many of you will remember that we were mired in debt and we were steeped in doubt,” Mr. Mfume said, recalling the fiscal misappropriations that clouded the 96-year-old civil rights group in the mid-1990s.

Now, he noted, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has $15 million in cash reserves “and a clear sense of both mission and mandate.”

Mr. Mfume, 56, said his immediate plans were to take a vacation and to spend more time with the youngest of his six children, a 14-year-old boy.

“I don’t want to miss another basketball game or another PTA meeting,” Mr. Mfume said. “I need a vacation. I haven’t had one in a couple of years.”

He dismissed as inaccurate speculation that he was leaving because of ailing health, a desire to again become a politician or because of a rift with the organization’s chairman, Julian Bond.

“I hope and pray that another challenge presents itself,” said Mr. Mfume, whose resignation is effective Jan. 1.

Dennis Hayes, general counsel for the NAACP, will act as his temporary replacement.

Just as he stepped in amid scandal, Mr. Mfume leaves as the Internal Revenue Service investigates the organization for exhibiting partisanship and perhaps violating the NAACP’s tax-exempt status.

The investigation was triggered by Mr. Bond’s nakedly partisan assault on Republicans during his keynote speech last summer at the NAACP’s annual convention in Philadelphia. Mr. Bond basically endorsed Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry after blasting as backward the Bush administration’s policies on the Iraq war, education and the economy. Mr. Bush already had declined to address the group.

During the convention, Mr. Mfume defended Mr. Bond’s anti-conservative rhetoric on the NAACP’s platform.

“I know that if I go to a soccer game and endorse my son’s team, some like to say that’s an NAACP endorsement,” Mr. Mfume said at the time. “That’s only because of the position I am in. In some cases, people won’t be able to make that separation and some will.”

Mr. Mfume yesterday disputed rumors that the investigation and a difference in approach had provoked a feud with Mr. Bond, saying, “Julian and I have worked together day in and day out; we talk three or four times a week; we e-mail each other 10 or 12 times a day. … I’m going to miss working with him and working with our board.”

Mr. Mfume has made overtures to President Bush even as his colleagues castigate the president. Karl Rove, Mr. Mfume said, called him yesterday to offer him best wishes on behalf of Mr. Bush, who was traveling.

Mr. Mfume made his announcement at a press conference yesterday at the NAACP’s national headquarters here in front of Mr. Bond, staffers and several members from the organization’s national board of directors.

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and head of the Congressional Black Caucus, yesterday called Mr. Mfume a catalyst for change in the civil rights community.

“In a time when the civil rights movement is experiencing a major transformation in a new century, Mr. Mfume served as an important link between the history and future of the organization,” Mr. Cummings said.

“He was most successful in addressing issues of injustice and the lack of diversity in a cross-section of our culture including government, business, media, entertainment and sports.”

Mr. Mfume, born Frizzell Gray, was raised in a broken home and spent much of his young adulthood on the streets of Baltimore, where he survived at one point as a homeless thug with a record of 13 arrests.

In his 1996 autobiography, “No Free Ride,” Mr. Mfume told of his reformation after a late-night craps game in the summer of 1972 on a Baltimore street corner.

“That night … I made a very real promise to myself and to God,” he wrote. “I promised I would never go back to the life I had known.” He then took the West African name, Mfume, which means “conquering son of kings.”

After a stint in radio, Mr. Mfume was elected to the Baltimore City Council in 1979, and to Congress in 1986. In February 1996, he turned away from almost certain re-election to Congress and accepted the NAACP presidency, where in 2001 he received a salary of nearly $250,000, according to tax records.

Mr. Bond said he hopes the organization finds a permanent replacement by the time it holds its July convention in Milwaukee.

“We were $4 million in debt nine years ago when we began looking for a new president,” Mr. Bond said. “And we had 2,000 applicants, along with Kweisi, who was the last. We’ll fill this as swiftly as we can.”

KWEISI MFUME

Born: Oct. 24, 1948

Education: Bachelor’s degree in science from Morgan State University in 1976; master’s degree in arts from Johns Hopkins University in 1984

Family: Divorced; five sons

Career highlights: Radio talk show host; member of the Baltimore City Council from 1979 to 1986; member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1987 to 1996; president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1996 to 2004

Source: Associated Press

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