NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW WITH KWEISI MFUME
DECEMBER 12, 1995
Charlayne Hunter-Gault conducts a newsmaker interview with the new head of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It was this past weekend that Kweisi Mfume was--Democratic Congressman from Baltimore--was named president and chief executive officer of the nation's oldest civil rights organization. His selection comes after 15 months of turbulence at the NAACP, and at a time when race has been pushed to the forefront of the political agenda. Congressman Mfume, a five-term veteran of the House is the former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Congressman, thank you for joining us.
REP. KWEISI MFUME, (D) Maryland: (Capitol Hill) Thank you very much for having me.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Why did you leave a safe congressional seat in the House to join an organization whose very existence is threatened, according to one of its board members?
REP. MFUME: Well, I was always taught that we come in this world with nothing, and we leave with nothing. And what's we do between our birth date and our death date that really determines to a large extent our worth and our substance as humans. I recognize that the NAACP still has a very real role in American society but that it has to change. It has to evolve to where many of the problems are and to meet them head on. So it was not a matter of walking away from the safety and security of a congressional seat, but it was, in fact, an opportunity to walk toward a challenge to make this country better by building coalitions, by working on issues, by bringing people together, and by organizing the youth of this nation in order that they might have a better life.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So how do you see your mission specifically?
REP. MFUME: Well, the first order of business, Charlayne, is to deal with the financial situation. The NAACP has, as you know, a $3.2 million debt that has to be liquidated, done away with, that has to be in place as there are in place now the right sort of accounting procedures and apparatus with the help of Price Waterhouse and others to ensure that never again will fiscal solvency be a question with the organization, that every dollar that comes in will be accounted for and every dollar that goes out. Second to that, I think at some point in time we've got to continue to do even more outreach to young people, to emphasize personal responsibility and academic excellence and to ask them to be a part of the fold and a part of what we have to do not only to rebuild the organization but to rebuild communities. It's a daunting task, make no mistake about it. Economic empowerment, trying to organize politically around this country, in every congressional district to get people to respond to their elected officials and to take their own destiny in their own hands is a tremendous task, but I welcome it, I look forward to it, and I walk to it with a clear understanding of what it's going to take.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Let's just go back a minute to that $3 billion deficit. I mean, that is a big number, and it's been hanging over the head of the organization for quite some time. Where do you expect to go to get this money?
REP. MFUME: There are two things that have to be done. First of all, you have to, I think, look at what your existing expenditures are, your existing income, and then to try to create an even more efficient mode of operation that will get us through the next 12 months or so. But secondly, and just as important, is the reestablishment of a corporate stream of giving, to go out and to solicit large donations, to increase membership, and to bring about the stability and to communicate that in such a way that people want to give again and want this organization to survive. Those things done in unison and in tandem, I think, will bring about a reduction of the debt, but more importantly, once the debt is gone, is to make sure that never again will it occur, and spending efficiency and operational efficiency are two things that we have to begin to look at.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What about some of the issues that you think are important? I read in the newspaper where one board member had such a long list of things that they expected you to, to tackle, but one of them was narrowing the racial divide in this country. Is that going to be a big issue for you?
REP. MFUME: Well, it should always be an issue, I think, with all of us, because we're not what we ought to be when we're a polarized society. We have to recognize that our differences are one thing but our similarities is where we build, and while I don't want to change you and you don't want to change me, we've got to find ways to peacefully coexist with the understanding also that there are things that are important to one group and things that are important to another group. That's done by example, I think, in reaching out and respecting mutually the right of others to exist.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Speaking of that, the Secretary of the Army, who was just on the program a little while ago, said that he was going to conduct an investigation into the murders at Fort Bragg today, the murders, he said today he was going to conduct an investigation into those murders. Is that a satisfactory response, as far as you're concerned, to the murders there?
REP. MFUME: Well, I think it's a response. We won't know if it's satisfactory until in March, when we get a report and see the depth and the length to which they have gone to try to find out whether or not this kind of thing is widespread and what they're going to do to root it out. I think at this point in time we've got to (a) wait for the investigation to occur and see what it says, but during the process, there ought to be communicated from the army, in fact, through the Joint Chiefs of Staff to all branches of military service, that that sort of brutality and that sort of senselessness will not be accepted under any condition, that membership in these organizations would not be tolerated, and that those sort of things would not only warrant expulsion from the armed services but also carry with them the potential of criminal charges.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How serious are the internal divisions within your organization now? Because this was a big problem up until--in fact, including your selection, which I gather was pretty a hotly contested thing until the end when you got a unanimous vote, but is that going to be a big problem for your leadership?
REP. MFUME: My selection wasn't hotly contested, because the board didn't know about it until the night before, and so when they did, fortunately there was a unanimous vote, but I think the divisions that exist and might exist within the NAACP are like they are in any other organization or effort in life. You're going to have people with strong personalities, strong ideas. I welcome that, because I think in a democracy, you have to have a free flow exchange of ideas. But at the same time, you've got to recognize that the larger role is to make sure that the organization succeeds. And so while debate is healthy, compromise is healthier, and at the end of the day, it's important to be able to put aside any individual concerns and get back to the concept of majority rule.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And, and are you confident that that can happen now, I mean, given the size of your board, which in the past has been criticized as being very unwieldy, and the deep divisions that have plagued the organization, do you feel that you're in control of that now?
REP. MFUME: Well, clearly, the board size is an issue that has to be dealt with, and part of my conditions for accepting what I consider to be an opportunity to be of service to the NAACP was to change reporting patterns because I don't think that anybody can report to a 64-member board and expect to be efficient in day-to-day operations. But it's not a matter of whether I'm in control or the board. If no one is control of this ship, it's going down, and that is a message that I have tried to put forward. I said to board members in a clear and honest way out of my respect for them that I didn't need a job, I didn't need my ego gratified, and I didn't need validation at this point in my life. What I need is a commitment to work together to try to build the sort of organization, re-energize the vision of it, and to lead people in this nation in such a way that we create a better a better America for all people. If that couldn't be done, then I didn't want the job, and I think they understood that and we began a process of seeing board members who may have been on opposite sides of the fence for one reason or another looking at each other, embracing, shaking hands, and willing to start anew with a brand new direction.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You said that you expected to pay courtesy calls on a number of black leaders and included among them was minister Louis Farrakhan. What do you think of Minister Farrakhan and his organization's place in the black leadership today?
REP. MFUME: I'm not going to be paying courtesy calls because I don't think I'm going to have that much time, but I will pick up the phone and reintroduce myself to as many people as I can and to let them know what my vision of the NAACP is. But with respect to Minister Farrakhan, he clearly has a following. He has a message that a lot of people gravitate to. The idea of raising self-esteem and doing for self and cleaning up your life so that you're productive again is something that resonates with a lot of people, that aspect of the message. So in that respect, his leadership clearly has been validated, if not by the Million Man March but a number of other things. But I think there will be a kind of coexistence that there has always been between the NAACP and other groups even in this case, the nation of Islam, a respectful coexistence. We're not going to be what they may be already, and they're certainly not going to be what we are.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Because--
REP. MFUME: But if we work--if we work on problems, mutually in our communities, we'll probably see much greater benefit than if we did not at all.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But you don't see this creating any problem for you, especially in fund- raising, because some of the organizations that have been very instrumental in helping to raise funds for organizations like the NAACP are concerned about the anti-semitism and other things that have been attributed to Louis Farrakhan, sexism, racism, you don't see this creating problems for you?
REP. MFUME: It can't create problems for me. I'm not a member. I'm the head of the NAACP. My mission, my vision is clear. And that may create problems for other people, but at this point in my life, I think most people know me well enough to know that as head of the NAACP I have a clear vision of the future. I'm going to work hard to make sure that takes place. I want a better America for all people. I believe in coalitions. I believe in the future of our young people, and I believe in it so strongly that I have sacrificed everything that was comfortable in my own life to be able to do that. And what I am saying by that example to people all across this nation who were once members or considering being members that it's all right now to come back home to the NAACP. We are reinvigorated, and we are beginning to get out of this hole the same way we got in, one shovel at a time.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, Congressman Mfume, we wish you all the best.
REP. MFUME: Thank you.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you.