Kweisi Mfume was born as Frizzell Gerald Gray in Baltimore, Maryland on October 24, 1948. When he was eleven, his stepfather abandoned the family; five years later, the boy’s mother died of cancer. Soon thereafter, Gray dropped out of high school, joined a street gang, was incarcerated more than once, and went on to father five sons out-of-wedlock with four different women. At age 23, Gray obtained his GED and began taking courses at the Community College of Baltimore, where he served as head of the Black Student Union. He also worked as a program director at a local radio station. When his aunt returned from a trip to Ghana in the early 1970s, she urged her nephew to change his name to “Kweisi Mfume,” a phrase of Ibo derivation that translates as “conquering son of kings.” The young man took the new name and transferred to Morgan State University, where he graduated in 1976.
In 1979 Mfume, a Democrat, began a seven-year stint on Baltimore’s city council, where he relentlessly accused then-mayor William Schaefer of ignoring the needs of the poor.
In 1984 Mfume earned a master’s degree in liberal arts from Johns Hopkins University. In 1986 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he went on to serve five two-year terms. He was also a member—and at one point the chairman—of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).
At a “Race in America” town hall meeting sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) on September 16, 1993, Mfume announced that his Congressional Black Caucus had entered into a “sacred covenant” with Louis Farrakhan‘s Nation of Islam (NOI), meaning that the two organizations would consult with one another on legislative issues and political strategies. At the meeting, Farrakhan joined former CBC chairman Kweisi Mfume, NAACP executive director Benjamin Chavis, Rep. Maxine Waters, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson in a discussion about: (a) the poor state of race relations in America, and (b) possible solutions to the problems facing the black community. Among the problems the panel identified were: societal prejudice against African Americans, black feelings of inferiority, housing and job discrimination, poverty, urban violence, and family dysfunction. Said Mfume: “We want the word to go forward today to friend and foe alike that the Congressional Black Caucus, after having entered into a sacred covenant with the NAACP to work for real and meaningful change, will enter into that same covenant with the Nation of Islam.”
Mfume backed out of the aforementioned covenant with NOI in February 1994, after a number of CBC members voiced concern about Farrakhan’s failure to condemn a recent instance of incendiary racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric by NOI spokesman Khalid Abdul Muhammad.
For an overview of Mfume’s voting record on a range of key issues during his tenure as a legislator, click here.
After leaving Congress, Mfume went on to become President/CEO of the NAACP, a post he would hold for eight years.
In 1997 Mfume supported the unsuccessful mayoral candidacy of Al Sharpton in New York City.
In 1998, Mfume was a signatory to a public letter addressed to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, declaring that “the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself.” Other signers included Tammy Baldwin, Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Jr., Walter Cronkite, Morton H. Halperin, Peter Lewis, George Soros, and Cornel West.
Also in 1998, Mfume lent his name to the Statement of Principles of the New Century Alliance for Social Security, a coalition of groups — spearheaded by Institute for America’s Future — that opposed the partial privatization of Social Security. Other signers included Brent Blackwelder, Heather Booth, Nancy Duff Campbell, Marian Wright Edelman, Mike Farrell, Roger Hickey, Patricia Ireland, Jesse Jackson, Steven Kest, Norman Lear, Robert Reich, Susan Shaer, Eleanor Smeal, Andrew Stern, John Sweeney, and Raul Yzaguirre.
In February 1999 Mfume announced that because African Americans comprised “a significant constituency that is disproportionately affected by gun violence,” his NAACP would be filing a lawsuit against 68 gun manufacturers and distributors who, he charged, were knowingly allowing their products to fall into the hands of criminals and permitting “easily available handguns … to turn many of our communities into war zones.” In a federal trial in Brooklyn, New York, the jury (in May 2003) cleared 45 of the defendants but was unable to arrive at a verdict on the other 23.
In the summer of 1999, Mfume described the television industry as “the most segregated industry in America.” Threatening to boycott the major networks—CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox—because “none of the … new shows for the [upcoming] fall season have a minority for a lead or starring role,” he demanded that the industry become “more inclusive” in order to make amends for the “virtual whitewash” of its programming. But in reality, all of the aforementioned networks had new programs with major black characters slated for the fall season.
In the summer of 2001, Mfume again complained that “by any reasonable standard, African-Americans and all other [nonwhite] races of people are underrepresented in almost every aspect of the television and film industry.” But according to the Screen Actors Guild, blacks, who were 12% of the U.S. population, were cast in 14.8% of all television and movie roles; ABC said that 33.6% of its new network hires were minorities; Fox reported that 41% of its prime-time series actors were minorities; and CBS stated that 29% of its actors were black.
In the 2000 presidential election season, Mfume and the NAACP sponsored a political ad implying that Republican candidate George W. Bush was a racist. Over black-and-white video footage of a pickup truck dragging a chain, the daughter of James Byrd—a black Texas man who in 1998 had been had chained to the back of a truck and dragged to his death by three white men—declared that “when [Texas] Governor George W. Bush refused to sign hate-crimes legislation, it was like my father was killed all over again.”
When three major Democratic presidential hopefuls—Joe Lieberman, Dick Gephardt, and Dennis Kucinich—failed to attend the NAACP’s national convention in 2003, Mfume angrily declared that the three were “persona non grata” in the black community and told them: “Your political capital is the equivalent of Confederate dollars.” When a reporter later questioned him about the matter, Mfume stated that the Democratic Party too often treated black voters with insufficient respect. “It’s like being a political mistress, being held by the party and kissed by the party and wined and dined in darkness,” he said. “And then in the light of day you don’t want to be seen with this group.”
A vocal critic of what he described as the “illegal” Iraq War, Mfume accused the George W. Bush administration of “deliberately” and “maliciously” lying to the American public about the urgency of deposing Saddam Hussein. He also claimed that the Patriot Act had caused “thousands of individuals [to be] denied their basic civil rights.”
In February 2004, Mfume and National Black Farmers Association president John Boyd met with Pedro Alvarez, director of ALIMPORT, Cuba’s food import company. They reached an agreement whereby, under a law that permitted Cuba to make cash purchases of agricultural products from the United States, the Cuban government pledged to direct its business specifically toward black American farmers. Following the deal, Mfume praised President Fidel Castro for having “kept his word” in agreeing to “establish trade links with black farmers.”
At the NAACP’s national convention in July 2004, Mfume derided black conservatives as the “ventriloquist’s dummies” of “ultraconservative right-wing,” racist “puppet master[s].”
In November 2004 the NAACP announced that Mfume would soon be leaving the organization in order to “pursue new challenges in media, politics and business.” But in truth, he was forced to leave as a result of a bitter, protracted feud with NAACP chairman Julian Bond. Their conflict had begun when Mfume nominated George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice for the 2003 NAACP Image Award, a move that infuriated Bond. Tensions between the two continued to escalate when Mfume, to Bond’s great chagrin, showed a willingness to reach out politically to Republicans. Bond eventually had Mfume voted out of his position as NAACP president, and the latter officially departed on January 1, 2005.
In February 2005, Mfume joined entertainer Harry Belafonte, former President Bill Clinton, movie director Spike Lee, and Marxist professor Cornel West in eulogizing the deceased African American actor and political activist Ossie Davis.
In April 2005, Mfume found himself embroiled in scandal when the Associated Press reported that according to a confidential NAACP memo, he had given raises and promotions to female employees with whom he had engaged in sexual relations during his tenure as the organization’s president. In May 2005, Mfume acknowledged an affair he had had with a female staffer, calling it a “boneheaded” mistake that lasted only briefly.
In September 2006, Mfume lost a primary race for the U.S. Senate seat that was being vacated by Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-Maryland). Mfume’s campaign received a financial donation from the Democratic Socialists of America PAC.
In 2008 Mfume endorsed Senator Barack Obama for U.S. President, signing up as a volunteer during the primary season and stumping for the candidate.
In May 2013, Mfume was named chairman of his alma mater, Morgan State University. He assumed the position on July 1.
On November 4, 2019, Mfume announced his candidacy for the special election which would determine who would serve out the remaining months of the late Elijah Cummings’ uncompleted term in the House of Representatives. On February 4, 2020, Mfume defeated 23 opponents in the Democrat primary, setting him up to run against a Republican in the April 28, 2020 general election in which he easily defeated Republican candidate Kimberly Klacik.
Mfume again defeated Klacik in the general election of November 3, 2020.
Mfume describes his politics as “very, very progressive” on social issues, but “a little more moderate” on fiscal matters. A former board member of People For the American Way, he has long been in favor of replacing the death penalty with life imprisonment; instituting a single-payer, government-run healthcare system for all Americans; lifting the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba; expanding affirmative action in business and academia; permitting same-day voter registration and publicly funded political campaigns with firm spending limits; and enacting comprehensive immigration reform that would normalize the status of illegal aliens.