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    NAACP leader to talk at Eckerd College

    A poll shows Kweisi Mfume isn't the best-known leader, but observers credit him with a lot of success.

    By JOUNICE L. NEALY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


    ST. PETERSBURG -- When Kweisi Mfume became head of the nation's largest civil rights organization five years ago, it was debt-ridden and, in the eyes of many, directionless.

    But the former Maryland congressman shaped up the agency's finances by drastically reducing its debt and revived the organization by thrusting it into new battles.

    Under his leadership, the NAACP fought to bring down the Confederate flag over South Carolina's state Capitol by calling for an economic boycott against the state. It also brought attention to the lack of diversity among U.S. Supreme Court law clerks and threatened to boycott four major networks because their series featured no minorities in starring roles.

    Tonight he will talk about race in America at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.

    Mfume is scheduled to speak at 8 p.m. at the college's McArthur Gymnasium. The lecture is free and open to the public.

    Mfume will deliver a one-hour speech on "Race: Exploring America's Agenda," followed by a question-and-answer session. He is the fourth speaker to participate in the Peter Rudy Wallace Public Service Lecture.

    "The primary thing that he's done for us is raised our visibility," said Leon Russell, the former state NAACP president who is now on the national board of directors. Despite the highly publicized battles that the NAACP has waged recently, including a lawsuit filed against Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to prevent future voter irregularities, the 52-year-old president and CEO of the NAACP is not very well-known among black Florida voters.

    A St. Petersburg Times poll last month found that more than a third of black registered voters in Florida don't recognize his name.

    James E. Newton, professor of black American studies at the University of Delaware, said Mfume's low profile among black voters in Florida might mean that those voters watch a lot of TV.

    "Mfume may not be on the TV as much as ... say, a Jesse Jackson," said Newton. "He may not have that higher visibility, but he's certainly making an impact."

    The NAACP's successful turnaround has similarities to Mfume's personal life.

    The Baltimore native, born Frizzell Gray, grew up without his father and watched his mother die in his arms when he was 16. He dropped out of school and hung out on the streets. But Mfume returned to school, graduated and went on to college. During his transformation, he changed his name.

    His career as a politician began when he was elected to the Baltimore City Council in 1979. He was elected to Congress in 1986 and led the Congressional Black Caucus.

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