The future of the NAACP sat before Kweisi Mfume Thursday night, an audience that was predominantly young, black and eager to hear his vision.
"Never let it be said that your place is with the timid," said Mfume, the NAACP president who in his 22-month tenure has gone from settling the organization's $3.1-million debt to reshaping its goals for the next century.
Along the way, he has taken a firm stand on continuing school integration and stepped into a brief firestorm of controversy with his support of a petition to have Merriam-Webster remove the racial slur n----- from its dictionary. That, he said, was a credible battle that did not detract from his greater mission, which is to reach a generation born almost a quarter century after the NAACP victory in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.
The former Maryland congressman replaced Benjamin Chavis after the former president was fired for allocating $332,000 of association money to quiet sexual harassment claims of a woman employee. Mfume said he inherited an organization that had failed to instill in younger generations a sense of the organization's worth.
Some of the more than 300 people who attended the lecture Thursday at the University of South Florida said they had come to hear Mfume's goals for the NAACP.
"I want to get a sense of direction," said Brenna Woods, 29, of Tampa.
Rodney Sessoms, 34, a pastoral ministry student, drove from Lakeland to hear Mfume speak. "I'm kind of excited. He's bringing out a fresh sense of unity. If anything, my question would be, what are the future plans? . . . The black community as a whole, a lot of people, they don't know what's going on."
Mfume reminded his audience that America, dating back to European conquests of black, Hispanic and Native American cultures, is steeped in a history of racism and ethnic tension. It is a country "conceived in hypocrisy and dedicated to the twisted principal that white men were superior," he said.
That history has continued to divide the country, making it a nation that is far from "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all," he said reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The audience applauded as he continued: "In many respects, America is not one nation."
He called on them to participate in the NAACP fight for equality.
"Now, we look at you," he told his audience. "Now that the ship is back in order, will you sail with us, or will you stand on the shore . . . I've come to Tampa to ask you not to give up. We might just be the last generation of African-Americans to help this nation achieve its promise."