Saying he needs a break, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume announced Tuesday that he’s stepping down as the head of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights group.
The organization’s legal counsel, Dennis Hayes, will serve as interim president while a national search is conducted.
“For the last nine years, I’ve had what I believe is both the honor and the privilege to help revive and to help restore this great organization, which has ... really become an American institution,” Mfume said.
He said he wanted to spend more time with his family. “I just need a break. I need a vacation,” he said. “I’m just not going to do anything for a while."
“In my heart of hearts, I know the job has been done, and I step aside willingly ... to find another challenge and another chance to make a real difference,” he said.
Mfume, 56, has been president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People since 1996. Before that, he was a congressman for nine years.
He inherited an organization tarnished by scandal and burdened by a $3.2 million debt and is credited with steering it into an era of stability and growth with corporate-style management techniques, including cost-saving layoffs.
Last month, the organization’s chairman, Julian Bond, announced that its tax-exempt status is under review by the government in an investigation he contends stems from a speech he gave that criticized President Bush. Bond said IRS agents were investigating his keynote address July 11 at the NAACP’s annual convention in Philadelphia.
For an organization to keep its tax-exempt status, “leaders cannot make partisan comments in official organization publications or at official organizational functions,” according to an Oct. 8 letter to the NAACP from the IRS office in Louisville, Ky.
In September, the group launched an advertising campaign aimed at combating what officials describe as stagnant membership growth. The civil rights group, founded in 1909, wants to increase membership by 20 percent, Mfume said at the time.
The group claims 500,000 members, but it has not seen significant membership growth in recent years.
Mfume, whose adopted West African name translates to “conquering son of kings,” began his career as a dashiki-clad popular radio talk show host and political activist in the 1970s and transformed himself into one of the nation’s foremost civil rights leaders.
He served on the Baltimore City Council from 1979-1987 before winning a closely fought race to represent Baltimore’s 7th district in the House of Representatives. Mfume was elected to four more terms in Congress and was leader of the Congressional Black Caucus before stepping down to head the NAACP.
“To serve as the president of the NAACP ... clearly has been the most rewarding and the most fulfilling experience in my life,” Mfume said. “I walk away with more rather than less.”