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Intolerance abounds, black leader says

The NAACP president urges a crowd at Eckerd College to focus on similarities, not differences.

By JOUNICE NEALY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Intolerance has resurfaced like an old plague in America, the president and CEO of the NAACP said Wednesday.

Black churches have been bombed, religious schools have been sprayed with gunfire and individuals have been targeted by gunmen who despise their victims' differences.

"It's still a matter of having a long, long way to go," Kweisi Mfume told the crowd of more than 1,000 at Eckerd College. "What path do we take?"

Mfume, 52, is the leader of the nation's largest civil rights organization. "We believe that colored people come in all colors," he said.

Mfume gave a one-hour speech titled "Race: Exploring America's Agenda" for the college's annual Peter Rudy Wallace Public Service Lecture. Wallace is a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

"If we do not focus on our similarities ... we will never understand the legacy of our past," Mfume said.

America is far from achieving perfect harmony, he said, and pointed to political and educational inequities. According to Mfume, less than 7 percent of all elected officials are African-American, Asian or Hispanic. He also said that public schools are crowded and drugs are easier to get than textbooks.

"Maybe it's more than just about race," he said. That means everybody is affected by the challenges and America should work together to fight injustices.

"There ought not be any tolerance in this country for hate crimes," Mfume said.

The former Maryland congressman is credited with redefining the NAACP, helping to get it out of debt and defining new goals.

Since Mfume became president in 1996, the NAACP has fought to bring down the Confederate flag from over South Carolina's state Capitol by calling for an economic boycott against the state. The group also brought attention to the lack of diversity among U.S. Supreme Court law clerks and threatened to boycott four major television networks because their programs featured no minorities in starring roles.

The NAACP even has waged legal battles in Florida. It filed a lawsuit against Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to prevent future vote irregularities.

The Baltimore native, born Frizzell Gray, grew up without his father. His mother died in his arms when he was 16 years old. Mfume dropped out of school and hung out on the streets. Before he was in his early 20s, he had fathered five children out of wedlock.

But Mfume returned to school, graduated and went on to college. He changed his name to Kweisi Mfume, which means "Conquering Son of Kings" in Ghana.

At Morgan State University in Maryland, Mfume was editor of the school's newspaper and president of the Black Student Union. After graduating in 1976, he returned as an adjunct professor and later earned a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University.

His political career began in 1979, when he was elected to the Baltimore City Council. In 1986, he was elected to Congress. He led the Congressional Black Caucus for two years.

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