- Former President of the NAACP
- Former Representative for Maryland’s 7th Congressional District
- Views racism as a uniquitous presence in American society
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 children 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 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. For an overview of Mfume’s voting record on a range of key issues during his tenure in Congress, click here.
In 1997 Mfume supported the unsuccessful mayoral candidacy of Al Sharpton in New York City.
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.1
In January 2000, NBC struck a deal with the NAACP in which the network pledged to find more minorities to write, produce, and direct its television shows. Mfume predicted that similar agreements would follow with ABC, CBS, and Fox.
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 the three as “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 NAACP was the “political mistress” of the Democratic Party, and that party leaders should remember that mistresses must be taken care of.
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 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 May 2013, Mfume was named chairman of his alma mater, Morgan State University. He assumed the position on July 1.
A former board member of People For the American Way, Mfume 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.
For additional information on Kweisi Mfume, click here.
1 Eric Mink, “NAACP Stirs Nets’ Response,” New York Daily News (July 14, 1999), p. 73. Lawrie Mifflin, “NAACP Plans to Press for More Diverse TV Shows, The New York Times (July 13, 1999). Hannity and Colmes television broadcast, Fox News Channel (July 13, 1999).
2 Other supporters included Marion Barry, Julian Bond, Carol Moseley-Braun, Jesse Jackson, Leonard Jeffries, Maulana Karenga, Coretta Scott King, Julianne Malveaux, Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Malik Zulu Shabazz, Al Sharpton, Russell Simmons, Kanye West, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Bar Association, the National Council of Negro Women, the National Urban League, the New Black Panther Party, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.