Kweisi Mfume Quits NAACP
By: George E. Curry and Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA, News Service
Originally posted 11/30/2004
(c) Copyright National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service.
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Kweisi Mfume, the president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has resigned, effective Jan. 1, after nearly nine years as head of the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization.
At a news conference Tuesday at the NAACP’s headquarters in Baltimore, Mfume said: “For the last nine years I’ve had the honor and privilege to help revive and restore the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. The people I have met along the way and the lessons I have learned have been invaluable, but sadly for me, the time has come to set sail and chart a new course.”
Dennis Hayes, the NAACP’s general counsel, will serve as interim president and CEO, until a successor is picked, probably by next summer. He served in a similar capacity after the resignation of former Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks.
The NAACP, established in 1909, claims a membership of 500,000. It has 2,200 adult branches and 1,700 youth and college chapters.
Although he is officially resigning, a board source says Mfume, who signed two 4-year contracts with the organization, was not offered a third contract by the 64-member board of trustees headed by Julian Bond. However, Mfume, who earns nearly $300,000 a year, will be retained as a paid consultant for six months, allowing him to maintain his salary and benefits until his successor is selected.
Mfume’s resignation caught some NAACP insiders by surprise. The board learned of the decision in a Monday night telephone conference call and a staff meeting was called at national headquarters in Baltimore for 9 A.M. Tuesday, three hours before the news conference.
Sources say Mfume’s decision to resign is unrelated to a recent disclosure that the Internal Revenue Service is investigating whether the NAACP violated its federal tax exempt status last summer when Board Chairman Julian Bond gave a speech highly critical of President Bush at the organization’s annual convention in Philadelphia. The IRS has strict prohibitions on tax-exempt groups participating in partisan politics. Bond says he was exercising his First Amendment right to free speech at time, not participating in partisan politics.
‘My decision to move on should be seen for what it is; another choice to seek another challenge, and another chance to make a difference,” Mfume said.
It is widely known that Mfume is considering a run for the U.S. Senate from Maryland. The next competition for a Senate seat in Maryland will be in 2006, when Paul S. Sarbanes completes 30 years in the Senate. It is not yet known whether Sarbanes will seek re-election or retire.
“With one Black with a funny name [Barak Obama, D-Ill.] joining the Senate, I guess he figured another one with a funny name can win, too,” a NAACP source joked.
In his autobiography, “No Free Ride,” written with Ron Stodghill, the former five-term Congressman from Baltimore recalls that he changed his name from Frizzell Gray to Kweisi Mfume, a Ghanaian name meaning “Conquering Son of Kings” to symbolize his decision to shed his rough-and-tumble ways of the streets.
Civil rights scholars say Mfume’s greatest contribution was helping restore fiscal health to an organization that was rocked by a sexual scandal that abruptly ended the controversial tenure of Benjamin Chavis as executive director of the NAACP. The organization sunk nearly $4 million in debt under the leadership of Chavis and Board Chairman William Gibson, a Greenville, S. C. dentist.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers, succeeded Gibson in 1995 and after a national search, Mfume, former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, was picked the following year to replace Chavis, who later joined Minister Louis Farrakhan in the Nation of Islam. After several years, Chavis, who changed his name to Muhammad and then back to Chavis, left the Nation and began working with Hip-Hop mogul Russell Simmons in New York.
“Myrlie had already raised a million or so dollars when Mfume came aboard, but he was the reason the NAACP was able to raise several million dollars to get us out of debt,” a board source explains.
Board Chair Julian Bond, a longtime civil rights activist, said: “Kweisi Mfume came to the NAACP when we were nearly bankrupt and our reputation under siege; he left sure re-election to the Congress to help save the NAACP. In short order, he and our former chair, Myrlie Evers-Williams, restored us to solvency and to primacy among civil rights organizations. He has been one of the most effective spokespersons for justice and fair play. We are saddened by his departure, but wish him well in his future pursuits.”
Mfume was also credited with expanding youth involvement in the NAACP and bringing more professionals on staff. However, he was not viewed as a strong office administrator, opting for high-profile activities in Hollywood and national television appearances. For a while, Mfume hosted a weekly TV show in Baltimore but now hosts a monthly syndicated television program called “Remarkable Journey.”
As he explores the possibility of a Senate bid, Mfume is expected to continue his paid speaking engagements and might serve as a political analyst for one of the cable networks, some of his advisers say.
Although each man denies it, insiders say there was also friction between Mfume and Julian Bond over who would serve as the official face of the NAACP. Although that role has been traditionally played by the president (formerly called the executive director), for years the organization has always had a strong-willed board chair and Bond continues in that mold.
“Although this infighting has been going on for a while, you could tell that Mfume was getting tired,” one board source says. “You have two former politicians (Bond served in the Georgia House and Senate) with strong egos. And they both want to be the leader.”
Mfume’s resignation caught many NAACP members by surprise, especially since he sent a conciliatory letter to President Bush less than a month ago requesting a meeting to set aside past differences. Both Mfume and Bond had been extremely critical of Bush for not addressing the group’s annual convention while in office, something no sitting president had done since the early 1920s.
“Julian would have never written that letter to Bush,” one board member says. “Julian is really sharp on the issues and Mfume is forever the politician.”
Forever might be an overstatement.
When Bush refused to address NAACP’ delegates last summer, Mfume said at the time: ''We're not fools. If you're going to court us, court us in the daytime, but not like we're a prostitute where you run around at night or behind closed doors and want to deal with us, but not want to deal with us in the light of the day.''
Several board members interviewed say they don’t know if Mfume would have agreed to serve another four years if he had been presented with that option.
“You have the unwieldy 64-member board [of the NAACP],” one board member notes. “But the organization is controlled by the 17-member executive committee. And Julian controls that. There was no way for Kweisi to get another contract unless that’s what Julian wanted.”
Evidently, what Bond and other board members want is a national search to select the next president and CEO of the organization. Francisco L. Borges, treasurer of the board and two-time state treasurer in Connecticut, is expected to co-chair the search committee, members say.
Hayes, the interim president of the NAACP, said, “While the search for a new president is conducted, the NAACP will continue to lead the fight for civil rights and will move aggressively to strengthen the relationship between our 2,000 affiliates (adult branches and college chapters) and the national office.”
There has always been intrigue and power struggles within the NAACP. The infighting became so intense during the 1970s that then-chair, Margaret Bush Wilson, a St. Louis lawyer, suspended Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks for insubordination. But the bitterly-divided board reversed Wilson at its next meeting.
Regardless of internal bickering at the national level, the strength of the NAACP has always been its local chapters, operated by volunteers.
“People bad-mouth the NAACP, but when they get in trouble, that’s the first place they run to,” one NAACP executive says. “Whenever there is a discrimination complaint or police brutality, they go to one of our branches. And that’s our strength.”
Mfume said, “In order to win the fight against poverty, eliminate discrimination and foster greater tolerance for the persons and things that we find different from ourselves, we are obligated to work together in coalition for the greater good.”
He continued, “The future that is before all of us also requires that we find new ways to change old habits. For the NAACP and organizations like us, it also means understanding our ever-changing political/social environment, so that it is made to work for us and those who need help the most. Only by conforming to the reality of today’s battlefield do we avoid being consumed by it.”