Kweisi Mfume is a former U.S. congressman and past president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was also named chief executive officer of the National Medical Association.
Mfume was born Frizzell Gray in Turners Station, Maryland, October 24, 1948, the eldest of four. His father, a truck driver, abandoned his family in Gray's youth. In 1960, Mary Gray and her children moved to West Baltimore, where they struggled financially. Education was segregated, and Gray recalled being confused about having to pass three schools on the way to his own.
The Grays drew inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr., and President John F. Kennedy. In 1962, Gray heard President Kennedy speak in Baltimore. A year later, the Grays wanted to attend King’s civil rights March on Washington but could not afford the trip.
In 1965, his mother died in his arms after battling cancer. Shortly after her death, Mfume dropped out of high school at sixteen to begin work as many as three jobs at a time to support his three sisters. Though the Gray children were parceled out among relatives, Gray felt responsible for the well-being of his sisters: Darlene, LaWana, and Michele. He also began hanging around street corners, sometimes with the wrong friends.
In his biography, Kweisi Mfume reports that he "was locked up a couple of times on suspicion of theft because [he] happened to be black and happened to be young, and happened to be guilty and a rock pusher." Speculation as to the degree of his entanglement with the law has varied, especially as he later came into prominence. He became father to five children with several different women during his difficult teenage years, whom he actively supports, and who actively support him in his politics. He has since adopted one child as well.
In the summer of 1972, Gray saw a vision of his mother’s face, convincing him to leave his life on the streets.5 Earning a high school equivalency degree, Gray changed his name to symbolize his transformation. He adopted the name Kweisi Mfume at the suggestion of an aunt who had traveled through Ghana. The name means “conquering son of kings” in a West African dialect. At age 23, Kweisi Mfume obtained his GED and began taking courses at the Community College of Baltimore, where he served as head of the Black Student Union. While attending the community college, Kweisi Mfume served as an announcer for WEBB Radio Baltimore, which was owned by legendary blues singer James Brown.
Mfume volunteered for Parren Mitchell’s 1968 campaign. Though Mitchell lost the primary election, the experience sparked Mfume’s interest in politics. He soon went from introducing popular records on the radio to hosting his own ad hoc political talk show. From 1974 to 1976, Mfume was the dee-jay for “Ebony Reflections,” a radio show that discussed African-American political concerns between musical selections and aired recordings of Malcolm X and King He then transferred to Morgan State University, graduating in 1976. He went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Liberal Arts from Johns Hopkins University in 1984.
Kweisi Mfume began his career in politics by serving on the Baltimore City Council in 1978. Adopting the slogan “Beat the Bosses,” he conducted a massive, but disorganized, door-to-door campaign. Mfume won the seat by a mere three votes. Shortly after Mfume’s razor-thin victory, a mentor encouraged him to change his attire from more-eclectic, African-inspired clothing to suits and ties. Mfume followed the advice; however, he remained outspoken and often instigated famously heated battles with Democratic Mayor William Donald Schaefer.
In November 1986 he was elected to the U.S House of Representatives, where he would hold his seat for a decade. During that period, Mfume was a staunch, consistent advocate of affirmative action. He spent some time as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), and as chairman of the CBC Task Force on Affirmative Action. Mfume’s background led him to focus on urban economic renewal, and his committee assignments reflected this emphasis. In 1990, he convinced the Subcommittee on Housing of the Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs Committee to include an amendment that would prorate rents in public housing on the basis of real income, less alimony and child support payments, rather than net income. Mfume presided over a debate that preceded the passage of the civil rights bill by the House in 1991; the measure facilitated the collection of damages by victims of job discrimination based on race, sex, disability, or national origin.
In February 1996, Mfume left the House to accept the presidency of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, America’s largest and oldest civil rights organization. Stating that he could do more to improve American civil rights in the NAACP than in the Congress, he reformed the association's finances to pay off its considerable debt while pursuing the cause of civil rights advancement for African Americans. Under his leadership, the NAACP continued its growing tradition of ascribing an enormous array of problems afflicting black people to America’s allegedly rampant, undiminished racism.
Reflecting on his political career, Mfume mused, “I could just stand on the side and be a spectator. But politics is not a spectator sport. And in Washington, it’s a contact sport. I don’t play to tie, I try to play to win. But you can only win if you are in the game.”Mfume attempted a return to elective political office in 2005, when he announced his candidacy to succeed retiring U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes in the 2006 election. In a crowded Democratic primary, Mfume lost by a narrow four-point margin to Maryland Representative Ben Cardin, taking 40 percent of the vote.