Ghetto boy makes good for US blacks

LOCAL HEROES: 9

Washington - If his life story had been submitted as a work of fiction, it would have been rejected as preposterous. After all, black gang members in inner-city ghettos do not have road-to-Damascus experiences on street corners that transform their lives. And just supposing one did, he would become a social worker, perhaps a church minister. He certainly would not enter Congress, and turn into one of the most skilful and heavily courted figures on Capitol Hill - only to abandon that most promising career to take charge of the venerable but deeply troubled doyen of America's civil rights groups.

Even in the land of make- believe, publishers would say, this sort of thing simply does not happen. But in the case of Kweisi Mfume, newly installed chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, it has.

Frizzell Grey, who was born 48 years ago and raised in Baltimore, who hung out with street toughs and fathered five children out of wedlock, really did see the light one summer night in 1972. Having realised the folly of his ways, he went back to school, got two degrees, entered politics and was elected in 1986 to Congress, where he became chairman of the Black Caucus, and was seen by many as a future Democratic floor leader. Along the way, he changed his name to Kweisi Mfume, a Ghanaian term meaning "Conquering Son of Kings" - and found time to be a proper father to his children.

This is epic stuff, and small wonder that three weeks ago Mr Mfume's first trip to Chicago and the Midwest as head of the NAACP, ostensibly to attend a tribute of the National Rainbow Coalition to its founder Jesse Jackson, turned into a celebration of his own appointment. "Go tell it on the mountain that the NAACP is back," Mr Mfume said. "We met the enemy one day and it was us, and in finding ourselves, we found our future."

Not before time. Founded after an Illinois race riot in 1909, the NAACP is the oldest and largest of America's mainstream civil rights organisations. But in recent years it has lost its way. At his swearing-in ceremony last month which President Bill Clinton attended, Mr Mfume promised that change at the NAACP would be "swift, focused and constructive". He has kept his word, in a fashion which his admirers perhaps did not expect - sacking one-third of staff of the organisation's full-time staff after a fortnight on the job. Having defied logic in rescuing his own life, his supporters say, surely he can do the same with the NAACP - and maybe with black America as well.

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