MAXWELL:  NAACP leader ushers in bright future for group

7/16/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



Today’s NAACP, the nation’s oldest, largest and most-respected civil rights organization, has again become a political force to be reckoned with.

This is a remarkable trend because, before 1996, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was imploding from infighting and struggles to dig out of a $3-million pile of debt. Pundits, social scientists and others had dismissed the group as being irrelevant.

At its 91st annual meeting at the Baltimore Convention Center, however, the NAACP finds itself free of debt and internal bickering. And, perhaps as a sign of things to come, it can boast of rising membership, especially among high school and college students, and more private talks with some of the nation’s most powerful corporate leaders and elected officials.

Almost everyone connected with the organization agrees that the NAACP is thriving because of its president and CEO Kweisi Mfume.

In fact, the NAACP has become the embodiment of Mfume, a West African name that means “conquering son of Kings.” The Baltimore native never knew his father, and he and his mother struggled to survive. Even as a child, he became the man of the house, demonstrating creative ways to make ends meet. In her son, the mother saw a natural-born leader, a survivor, a kid who would make her proud.

When he was 16, his mother died of cancer _ in his arms. Crushed, he became a street kid, dropped out of school and fathered five illegitimate children before his 20th birthday.

Ultimately, he matured and returned to high school, graduated and enrolled at traditionally black Morgan State University in Maryland.

There, the former truant blossomed. As a freshman, he became editor of the campus newspaper, brought a new militancy to the publication and was elected president of the Black Student Union (not to be confused with the official student government association).

In 1976, he graduated magna cum laude and returned to Morgan State a short time afterward as an adjunct professor in communications and political science. A few years later, he earned a master’s degree in liberal arts, with a concentration in international studies, from Johns Hopkins University. His popularity as a radio talk show host and community organizer helped him win a seat on the Baltimore City Council. From there, he went to Washington as a U.S. Congressman, serving his district for 10 years and leading the Congressional Black Caucus.

After Benjamin Chavis was fired as the NAACP’s executive director, Mfume took control and charted a new course of selective engagement _ fighting battles that can be won. Some victories may seem shallow to outsiders, but Mfume sees each as a badge of respect for the organization. Even when the organization fails to get specific results, it always raises public awareness and encourages agencies to change policies or implement diversity training and include minorities in business practices.

Instead of being irrelevant, the NAACP is necessary, Mfume said during an interview with Jubilee, a black magazine in Baltimore: “The NAACP may be even more relevant in today’s world because of the fast pace of change, and the different ways that disparities evidence themselves. Whether it’s the digital divide . . . or whether it is the kind of subtle racism that has a different form from the overt racism of the past, if and when people are injured by things like that, then it becomes a matter of great concern to the NAACP.

“The fact that the number of discrimination cases is on the increase . . . the continued increase in hate crimes, and the disparities that we have witnessed so often in terms of health care, education, income and educational attainment, it is clear that the relevancy of the NAACP in today’s world is just as important as it was during the heyday of the civil rights period.”

Nothing succeeds like success. By employing strategies of embarrassment, lawsuits and boycotts, the NAACP has triumphed in recent years.

During recent months, the group stayed in the news because of its war with South Carolina and the Confederate flag. In this instance, the organization resurrected the boycott, a staple of the civil right era.

“The issue of an economic boycott is a power this organization possesses that we would be foolish not to use as we try to bring about real and lasting change that benefits all people in our society,” he said. “We don’t use the boycott recklessly. We only do that after a great deal of discussion has occurred. . . . In South Carolina, we negotiated for 38 years with the government before instituting this boycott.

“We negotiated with the TV networks for several years to bring about change. We did not have to use the boycott because we were able to reach agreements. The boycott . . . is viewed as a final measure. . . . It is very effective, and clearly it has meaning today as we try to bring about change. We will not use it if more institutions, corporations are willing to meet us half way on the major issues . . . to discuss them and have a chance to ameliorate them.”

To say that Mfume’s threat of a boycott scares corporations and other agencies is no exaggeration. Tom Sponseller, president and CEO of the Hospitality Association of South Carolina, said the flag boycott cost the state 123 conventions and tens of millions of dollars. Many businesses, especially smaller ones, whose incomes come from tourists, were hard hit and urged the legislature to pull down the banner.

In March, because of a chain of events the NAACP initiated on behalf of black guests during Black College Reunion in Daytona Beach, the Adam’s Mark luxury hotel chain settled a Justice Department discrimination lawsuit for $8-million. Other hotel chains, including Omni, have reacted positively to the NAACP’s wake-up calls.

The Baltimore Sun reports that some companies have become NAACP sponsors in trying to avert negative press or economic sanctions. Clothing retailer Eddie Bauer, for example, accused of discriminating against African-American customers and required to pay $1-million, is working closely with the NAACP to woo back consumers.

And in its latest move, which Mfume announced at the convention, the organization will spend the next three months identifying and boycotting banks with lousy histories of minority lending.

Observers say the NAACP, which is non-partisan and has 500,000 members, is clearly more political in how it attacks issues than it was before Mfume’s arrival. And important people are noticing. Even President Clinton took a break from Middle East peace talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to address the delegates.

USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham captures the essence of Mfume’s evolving legacy: “Mfume’s agenda reads a lot like the alternative budgets that are put forth by the Congressional Black Caucus he once led. He talks of the need for more economic empowerment, better health care and educational opportunities for African-Americans. But unlike his recent predecessors, Mfume calls for action are backed by a more credible threat of political reaction.”

Mfume’s “political reaction” to the current election season _ in which blacks have a lot at stake _ is that of a former elected official, who understands the power of behind-the-scenes deal-making and the ballot box.

Because of him, the theme of this year’s convention was Race to Vote. Where other leaders have tried to register large numbers of black voters, Mfume and an army of volunteers have registered nearly 3-million since last July. The goal is to register 4-million new black voters in time for Congressional and presidential elections in November. Voter registration, along with analysis of various legislative report cards and profiles, dominated this year’s conference.

On another front, Mfume pledged to take a delegation of black farmers _ who systematically have been denied loans by mainline lenders _ to Cuba to prepare for emerging markets as further sanctions are lifted against the small island nation.

Mfume’s biggest contribution may prove to be his success with young people, ensuring the NAACP’s long-term viability.

“Our greatest challenge,” he said, “is the real need to usher in a whole new generation of leadership _ young men and women who are prepared to face the great issues of the day as they grow and become a part of society, and who are prepared to lead us in the arts, in the humanities, in the sciences, in politics and religion and in athletics.

“We must imbue those young people with a real sense of their heritage and their history, a past in which the NAACP is a part and a future that awaits them with great promise.”