Growing up, Kweisi Mfume’s family struggled financially. In addition, the schools where he lived in West Baltimore were highly segregated, a fact that deeply disturbed and confused him. When Mfume was eleven, his stepfather abandoned the family. Then, when Mfume was sixteen, his mother discovered that she had cancer and soon died. He told U.S. News and World Report, “After she died of cancer, things spun out of control.” Mfume quit high school during his second year and went to work to help support his sisters. At times, he worked as many as three different jobs in a single week.
Mfume also began hanging out on street corners drinking with friends. “Not only did I run with all the worst people, I became the leader,” Mfume recalls. “I was locked up a couple of times on suspicion of theft because I happened to be black and happened to be young.” He soon fathered five children while he was still a teenager himself.
After a few stints in jail, Mfume decided to change his life around for the better. At age 23, he obtained his GED and began studies at The Community College of Baltimore County, where he served as the head of its Black Student Union and the editor of the school newspaper. He went on to get his graduate degree from John Hopkins University, was elected to the Baltimore City Council, Congress, and later become president of the NAACP. While with the NAACP, Mfume reformed the association and pursued the cause of civil rights advancement for African Americans. He served as president of the NAACP for nine years before stepping down in 2004 to pursue other interests.