WASHINGTON – Former Rep. Kweisi Mfume was sworn in Tuesday as president and chief executive officer of the NAACP, pledging to reduce the organization’s debt and redefine its role in civil rights.
The Democrat takes the helm of a 500,000-member organization steeped in a debt he estimates at more than $3.2 million.
“The NAACP will reclaim its voice,” said Mfume, 47, of Baltimore. “There will be change. It will be swift, it will be focused, and it will be constructive.”
President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Maryland congressmen were among the many leaders who came to support Mfume’s decision to direct the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.
“I thank my good friend Congressman Mfume for his willingness to lay down his political career,” Clinton said. “It is a wise choice. It will give us a better future.”
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Baltimore, said Mfume will be able to offer eloquent rebuttals to people like GOP presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan and National of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
“Those are the people who are out there appealing to the fears of the black and white community,” Mikulski said. “We need voices like Kweisi.
“I think that Kweisi will be a voice for his own constituency, but I think he will also be a voice for the social glue that will hold us together,” she said.
Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke called Mfume “the right man for the NAACP.”
He added: “They couldn’t have chosen better. He’ll be a great leader for them and that will be a benefit to all of us.”
Mfume was elected to Congress in 1986 and officially stepped down Sunday. His 7th District seat will remain vacant until April 16, when the winners of the March 5 primaries will compete for it in a special election.
Clinton said the crowded field for the seat is “a great tribute to the standard of public service” set by Mfume.
“He announced he was leaving and 32 people showed up,” the president said. “You can tell how good a person is by seeing how many people want to do what he once did.”
Schmoke said, “Obviously, it’s going to be tough to fill those shoes, but we have a lot of capable candidates out there.”
Clinton underscored how necessary the 87-year-old organization is for the nation.
“I can still remember as a boy what it meant to have a church burned in your home state,” Clinton said. “The country does need the NAACP.”
He mentioned that even Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, had to endure leaflets against his Asian-American wife during his aborted campaign for the presidency.
“That is wrong,” Clinton said.
Among the objectives Mfume outlined for the near future were retiring the organization’s debt, halting falling membership and encouraging corporate sponsorship.
He made a plea for financial support but said that corporations such as Dupont, Ford and General Electric had already contributed enough to shrink the debt by $1 million.
“We’ve got some preliminary figures from January that indicate that membership has slightly gone up, that larger donors are beginning to come forward, and that corporate support has been reinvigorated,” he said.
Mfume warned of extremist views and said the NAACP should steer clear of them.
“The extreme, ultra-conservative policies of the far right wing are draconian,” Mfume said. “They are policies which punish the elderly, restrict the poor and deny opportunity to our children.”
Mfume also condemned left-wing policies that he said aim to maintain the poor. “If we have learned nothing else in the past 30 years, it is in fact that the poor must not be maintained, they must be transformed.”
He said he plans to attend both the Republican and Democratic national conventions this summer.
The ceremony, held in the same Justice Department building that once barred blacks and other minorities from entering, was rich with renewal and a celebration of youth.
Four of Mfume’s five sons sat in the front row. “To have my children here after 16-and-a-half years of public life,” Mfume said afterward, “was a very emotional moment.” -30-