By DeWayne Wickham
Less than a month before voters in Maryland’s 7th congressional district go to the polls to pick the Democratic Party’s candidate to succeed Rep. Elijah Cummings, somebody “dropped a dime” on Kweisi Mfume.
Last week, Mfume, the presumptive frontrunner in the race for the Democratic Party nomination to replace Cummings – who died in October – was the target of an 11th hour smear. News stories alleged that the former congressman and NAACP president was forced out of his job with the civil rights organization in 2004 amid secret charges of mismanagement and sexual misconduct.
Coming as they do in the waning days of the special election campaign, these accusations threaten to derail Mfume’s attempt to return to the congressional seat he held for 10 years before resigning in 1987 to become president of the NAACP.
DeWayne Wickham is the founding dean of the School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State University.
These charges against Mfume stem from documents found in a collection of papers belonging to Julian Bond, a former NAACP board chairman who died in 2015. The papers are held at the University of Virginia, where Bond taught.
It’s a good bet that someone who wants to block Mfume’s return to Congress tipped off the media to their existence.
In reporting what it found in Bond’s papers, the Baltimore Sun quoted Bond as writing that the executive committee of the NAACP’s 64-member board secretly voted in 2004 not to renew Mfume’s contract “shortly after an employee threatened to sue the organization and Mfume for sexual harassment.”
The executive committee’s action, Bond claimed, “came after a long period of growing dissatisfaction with high and constant staff turnovers, falling revenues, highly questionable hiring and promotion decisions, creation of new staff positions with no job descriptions, and personal behavior which place each of us at legal and financial risk.”
You might think that Bond’s documents – his attacks from the grave on Mfume should be taken at face value. But my 25 years of reporting on the NAACP – 10 years of that time spent researching a book on the group’s internal politics and gender conflicts – causes me to question the legitimacy of Bond’s claims.
What my research revealed is that every leader of the NAACP, from Roy Wilkins to Kweisi Mfume, had a power struggle with the executive board of the NAACP that resulted in their ultimate departure from the civil rights group. And, except for Ben Chavis, who led the NAACP briefly in the 1980s, it was the board chair’s micromanagement and attempts to usurp the authority of the civil rights organization’s head that precipitated these departures.
In 1977, a power struggle between Wilkins and then NAACP chairman Margaret Bush Wilson resulted in the aging executive director being forced into retire.
In 1993, NAACP chairman William Gibson used the backing of the group’s executive board and an overly generous financial package to push Wilkins’ successor, Benjamin Hooks, into retirement. Gibson’s plan was to replace Hooks with Jesse Jackson. But when that scheme fell through, he maneuvered Benjamin Chavis into the executive director’s position. In both instances, board members and senior staffers privately gave me accounts of the board chair’s heavy-handed intrusion into the day-to-day operations of the NAACP.
Chavis was fired in 1994, ostensibly for using NAACP funds to settle a sexual harassment suit without the board’s permission. But many people inside the civil rights group’s leadership told me his dismissal was deeply rooted in his efforts to “radicalize” the NAACP.
In April 1994, Chavis convened a meeting of Black nationalists in Detroit. In June, he held a Black leadership summit at the NAACP’s Baltimore headquarters. These sessions outraged a core of NAACP board members who used Chavis’ mishandling of the sexual harassment lawsuit as a reason for demanding his ouster.
Kweisi Mfume was hired in 1995 to a position whose title was changed from executive director to president. It was a shift that reflected the board’s willingness to grant him great latitude in rescuing the NAACP from financial ruin and in restoring its standing as an organization that focused on fighting the enemies of civil rights – and not an unending internal power struggle.
Mfume succeeded in turning the NAACP’s deficit into a surplus. He also used his standing as a respected one-time congressman and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus to win the civil rights group some major victories. But he failed to stop the struggle for power inside the NAACP.
“Kweisi Mfume came to the NAACP when we were nearly bankrupt and our reputation (was) under siege; he left sure re-election to the Congress to help save the NAACP,” Julian Bond said in a 2004 press release when Mfume announced his resignation.
“He will leave a great void,” Bond told me in an interview back then. “He will leave with our best wishes – and our gratitude for his efforts in bringing us back to solvency early in his tenure, for restoring the NAACP to civil rights primacy, for making the organization better.”
Bond told me that he and Mfume had a great working relationship. He lied.
Bond, who had quietly tried to position himself to get the NAACP’s top job before it was offered to Mfume, according to sources who discussed the matter with me at the time, clashed often with Mfume over management decisions.
By the time Mfume stepped down, the tension between the two men had created a division among board members – one that caused some board members to rally to Mfume’s side and to demand Bond’s removal.
“Why is it that the president’s contract was allowed to expire with no action taken to retain him?” an anonymous group of board members wrote to Bond in a memo, a copy of which I obtained, that was sent to all 64 board members two days before Mfume announced his resignation.
“Many of us are tired of the way the chairman has continued to run the association,” they wrote.
The board members ended their missive with this appeal to their board colleagues: HELP US TO SAVE THE NAACP BY GETTING A NEW CHAIRMAN.” Battered, and almost certainly angered, by this attack, Bond hung onto his job and Mfume departed his.
In the wake of such blistering infighting among the NAACP’s board members over Bond’s leadership and his treatment of Mfume, it should not surprise anyone that Bond’s papers include such caustic writings about his nemesis.
But the veracity of his parting shots at Kweisi Mfume should be viewed through the prism of their fractured relationship.
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