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KWEISI MFUME

POLITICIAN, NAACP LEADER (1948-)

The eldest of four children, Kweisi Mfume (born Frizzell Gray) was raised in a poor community just outside Baltimore, Maryland by his mother and stepfather, Mary and Clifton Gray.  After years of physical abuse, Mary Gray left her husband in 1960 and moved the family to a neighborhood closer to the city.  Four years later she was diagnosed with cancer and within a short time learned the disease was terminal.  Mfume and his sisters were devastated by the news and suffered a traumatic blow when she died, literally, in the arms of her only son.  In his autobiography, No Free Ride, Mfume recalls just how difficult it was losing his mother. 

After his mother's death Mfume quit high school and began working to support his three sisters.  Disillusioned, he also began hanging out on the streets, becoming a gang leader and fathering several illegitimate children.  Disappointed with his reckless lifestyle Mfume made a decision to change his life when he was 22 years old.   He earned a high school equivalency diploma and graduated magna cum laude from Morgan State University in 1976.  In the early 1970s Mfume also began working as a disc jockey on local radio stations where he developed an interest in politics. 

He changed his name from Frizzell Gray to Kweisi Mfume (which means "conquering sons of Kings" in the African language spoken by the Ibgo), and in 1978 won a seat on the Baltimore City Council.  Mfume honed his political skills and in 1986 won the seat in the Seventh Congressional District vacated by legendary Black politician Parren J. Mitchell.  Mfume served five terms in Congress, eventually becoming leader of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).  On February 20, 1996, he left Congress to become president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organizations.  As president of the NAACP, Mfume has eliminated the organization's six-figure debt and has worked to revitalize its image among young African Americans. 

Revised: July 18, 2013.