The Bootstrap Method
02/26/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
KWEISI MFUME WAS SCRAPING bottom—hanging with guys from a west Baltimore gang, throwing dice outside a liquor store and suffering under the dank midsummer heat that smothered the city even in the dead of night. Suddenly a bolt of icy cold shimmied up his 23-year-old spine. To this day he swears that the big chill that night in 1972 was a life-transforming wakeup call delivered by the spirit of his beloved mother, who had died in his arms of cancer when he was 16. "That was it for me," says Mfume, 47. "I left the corner, walked to the house, got down on my knees and prayed that if I could just get beyond this point in my life, I'd never go back that way again."
Kweisi Mfume (pronounced Kwah-EE-see Oom-FOO-may) stayed true to that oath. He left the gang (a departure that provoked several fistfights), returned to school (working two jobs and yet graduating magna cum laude from Morgan State, then earning a master's in liberal arts at Johns Hopkins) and laid the groundwork for a political career that began in 1979 with a seat on the Baltimore City Council and peaked with five terms in the U.S. Congress. Mfume's model lifestyle reflects a measure of his success. He lives in a suburban brick colonial, dresses in neatly tailored suits, drives a new Mercury Cougar and cheers the Orioles from his box seats at Camden Yards.
But Mfume takes what may be his riskiest step on Feb. 20, when he will leave the comfortable clubbiness of Congress to become president of the beleaguered National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP, still reeling from a sex harassment scandal that dogged previous director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., suffers from a total $3.8 million budget shortfall and an increasing sense in the African-American community that the 86-year-old organization is no longer relevant. Rather than feeling intimidated, Mfume says he is energized by the challenge: "Given the polarization in the country, the levels of crime and hatred, given the despair that I see in the eyes of young people, I thought that I could do more at the NAACP."
Mfume's first memory of the 500,000-member NAACP dates from the early 1960s, when the Baltimore chapter staged a Don't Buy Where You Can't Try protest targeting local department stores. "You could go downtown and buy a hat, but you weren't allowed to try on the hat if you were black," he recalls. He doesn't rule out similar grassroots protests under his watch, but will focus more on enlisting younger NAACP members, retiring the debt and promoting minority business development. "Economics is the logical extension of the civil rights movement," says Mfume. Says Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise magazine: "He knows where the bucks are and how to leverage. He's as serious as a heart attack."
He has had to be. Born Frizzell Gray, Mfume grew up in Turners Station, a mostly black enclave east of Baltimore. When he was 12, his family (his father, Clifton Gray, mother, Mary Elizabeth, and three stepsisters) relocated to a west Baltimore row house in the core of the city's black community. He was so bookish and slight that neighborhood kids called him Peewee. A year later his father, a truck driver, left the family, and not long afterward his mother, a devout Catholic who worked as a maid to support Mfume and his stepsisters, discovered she had cancer. In 1965, Mary Elizabeth collapsed and died with her son by her side. That night, Rufus Tate, a neighbor frequently in trouble for running numbers and selling drugs, shared a shocking secret with the 16-year-old: Tate, who died in 1978, said he was Mfume's biological father. "We sat there for hours just talking," said Mfume, who considered Tate a good friend. "He told me about how my mother and he had fallen in love, and that her family didn't want her seeing him because he was running around—a real slick guy."
Without his mother's guidance, Mfume's life nosed into a tailspin that would last into his early 20s. He moved in with two uncles, dropped out of school and began hanging out with the local toughs, even rolling a drunk to earn his way into a loosely knit gang. A handsome young man (Mfume still turns women's heads, and political commentator Mary Matalin ranked him as one of Capitol Hill's 10 most desirable men), he also drifted from one relationship to another, fathering five sons by four women. He says he did what he could to help the boys, providing financial support and visiting on weekends. "He was a very caring father," says Yvonne McDowell, 45, the mother of Mfume's son Kevin. Donald, Michael, Keith, Ronald and Kevin, all in their 20s, have each graduated college or entered the military, Mfume says with pride.
After his reawakening that summer night on the street corner, Mfume set about reinventing himself. He settled down and even got married, though the relationship was short-lived. None of his sons know the woman's name, and Mfume resists discussing her, saying only, "I was in school full time, working my way through, and she was working her way through college." Eager at the time for a new name "that reflected my cultural ancestry," he asked a friend bound for Africa to do some research. She returned with the Ghanaian name Kweisi Mfume, which translates as "conquering son of kings." He repeated it to himself over and over. "When I woke up the next day," he says, "I knew that was it."
Starting as a gofer at WEBB, a popular black radio station, he later became a deejay with his own show. By 1978 he had become a local leader in the Free South Africa movement and won a seat on the city council. After slowly gaining a reputation as a consensus builder on a variety of issues, Mfume prevailed in a tough 1986 election to Congress in Maryland's urban 7th district, which is 71 percent black.
The once desperate young man had arrived. Photos on the walls of his congressional office show him side by side with such heavyweights as Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela. "Mr. Mandela kind of thinks of me as a son," says Mfume. "He keeps telling me he's going to find me a wife." Although his handlers say Mfume has no special woman in his life, he has been in the company lately of actress Lynn Whitfield (who starred in The Josephine Baker Story). In fact, says Mfume's son Kevin, "he's a one-woman guy. I think he's moving toward marriage."
So far, though, work has defined his adult life—a fact best illustrated by his recent, two-year tenure as head of the Congressional Black Caucus. Using the caucus's growing numbers as a weapon in 1993, Mfume squeezed billions in tax credits for the working poor into the federal budget. He also pressed the Clinton Administration to restore exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in Haiti.
Then, in a move that even supporters called a blunder, Mfume declared a "sacred covenant" in 1993 between the Black Caucus and the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan—a symbolic gesture that involved no formal ties but which killed speculation that the congressman might someday chair the House Democratic Caucus. Rep. Gary Franks (R-Conn.), one of two Republicans in the Black Caucus, remains concerned about Mfume's refusal to distance himself from the Nation of Islam. "To be too closely tied to those who espouse hatred to whites, Jews and Catholics would be to the NAACP's detriment," Franks says.
If his embrace of Farrakhan has cost him political support, Mfume nonetheless seems confident about his and the NAACP's prospects. In his autobiography, due out in July, he concedes that his own life's road has been peppered with self-made potholes. Still, he firmly believes people should not be judged by a given moment but by what they achieve over the long haul. "It's not how you start life that counts," he says. "It's how you finish."
SARAH SKOLNIK and DON HAMILTON in Washington