BALTIMORE – NAACP President Kweisi Mfume announced Tuesday that he is stepping down after a nearly nine-year tenure in which he helped rescue the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights group from debt and scandal.
Mfume, 56, said he wanted to spend more time with his family, namely his 14-year-old son. He became misty-eyed at a news conference as he described how the son – the youngest of his six children – has come to know a world of airplanes and news conferences for most of his life.
“I don’t want to miss another basketball game. I want to sew on his varsity letter on his sweater,” Mfume said of his son, who recently made the basketball team. “I just need a break. I need a vacation.”
Mfume, whose adopted West African name (pronounced kwah-EE-see oom-FOO-may) translates to “conquering son of kings,” began his career as a popular radio talk show host in the 1970s and transformed himself into one of the nation’s foremost civil rights leaders.
He inherited an organization tarnished by scandal and burdened by a $3.2 million debt when he took over as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in early 1996.
The organization’s reputation had been damaged by the revelation that its previous head, Benjamin Chavis, had used its funds to settle a sexual harassment suit without the board’s knowledge.
But Mfume is credited with steering the NAACP into an era of stability and growth with corporate-style management techniques.
The organization has enjoyed a budget surplus for eight consecutive years and an ever-increasing endowment fund.
“For the last nine years, I’ve had what I believe is both the honor and the privilege to help revive and to help restore this great organization,” said Mfume, a former congressman and Baltimore city council member. “In my heart of hearts, I know the job has been done.”
Some observers agreed with that assessment.
“When history looks back, it will smile on his tenure,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, head of the Congressional Black Caucus. “He took an institution that was limping along and helped them throw away the cane and walk upright.”
Shortly before his announcement, Mfume said he received a call from senior White House adviser Karl Rove who extended best wishes on behalf of President Bush, who is traveling.
He also spoke with other civil rights and political leaders, including Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, a black Republican, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“Each place he left, he left better off. He came at a time when the organization needed morale and credibility, and he brought both,” Jackson said.
The organization still faces many challenges.
Last month, the organization’s chairman, Julian Bond, announced that its tax-exempt status is under review by the government in an investigation he contends stems from a speech he gave that criticized President Bush.
In September, the group launched an advertising campaign aimed at combating what officials describe as stagnant membership growth. The group, founded in 1909, wants to increase membership by 20 percent, Mfume said at the time.
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