For over four decades, Rep. Kweisi Mfume has dedicated his life to empowering Black people through public service. The Maryland native began his career as an elected official in 1978 with his election to the Baltimore City Council. In November 1986, Mfume was elected to represent Maryland's 7th congressional district. During his fourth consecutive term in office, he also was named chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

In February 1996, Mfume left Congress to accept the presidency of the NAACP, leading the nation's oldest civil rights organization to new heights with innovative reforms.

After 24 years of giving leadership to various organizations, Mfume returned to Congress to represent the 7th congressional district of Maryland following his victory in a special election after the passing of Rep.Elijah Cummings, his successor and predecessor.

EBONY spoke with the Maryland congressional rep about his leadership of the NAACP, his sponsorship of the Cummings commemorative stamp and the future of the Democratic Party.

EBONY: You have one of the most remarkable stories in the history of American politics. Did you ever think you would return to Congress after being gone for over two decades?

Rep. Kweisi Mfume: No, in fact, my wife and I would often talk about what occupation I enjoyed most in my life and I told her it was being a member of Congress. She said, “Are you kidding me? That's hard." I replied, “Well, I never saw it as hard work. I just saw it as work that had to be done.” So I kept that to myself because I didn't want to suggest to anybody that I even had a thought about running again. I've was so supportive of Elijah and expected that he would be there forever. We've been friends for 42 years. So yeah, that's it's the most interesting, compelling position I've ever had. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it all over again. So you know, all of this is providential. It's not in my control. God saw fit to give me an opportunity; unfortunately, it was after the passing of Elijah.

How did your time as CEO of the NAACP prepare you for your second tenure in Congress?

Well, the most evident thing is the number of people that I've met, For those nine years that I was at the NAACP, some people I met back then are now members of Congress and the Senate. I came back into this institution with a lot of them knowing me and whether they agreed with me or not, they respected my work at the NAACP. I didn't have to develop those relationships at all. The other thing is that the NAACP, helped me to fully appreciate how many diverse communities there are in this country—sometimes in just one state. I got a better appreciation of the mosaic. The fact that there are so many different thoughts, opinions, views and priorities taught me a lot.

When did you meet Elijah Cummings?

I met him on the streets. In those days, Elijah was working with former State Senator Clarence Mitchell's organization, which was called the People's Democratic Organization. They were very influential in terms of getting people elected and involved because Rep. Parren Mitchell, who was my predecessor, was the godfather of all of those politics. Over there on the west side of Baltimore, Parren was also who I looked up to. He taught us everything that we would ever need to know about politics and was a real father figure for us for a long time. At the time, Elijah was trying to convince me with literature in his hand, that I should be supporting the slate of candidates that the People's Democratic organization had endorsed. I had a slate of candidates in my own hand, as I worked with the 40th District Democratic Club, which was the organization headed by the late Senator Verda Welcome. She was the second Black woman ever to serve in a state senate in the United States, and she took me under her wing and for some reason; she had me working with the organization and I did for a couple of years. So Elijah was there with his campaign literature and I was standing there with mine. We kind of chuckled and introduced ourselves. Little did we know that up until the day of his death, we would be friends from that point on.

Are you the first person in Congress to precede and succeed the same person for the same seat?

That's a good question. I don't know. I do know that I'm the first person to have left for 23 years and then to come back to be reelected in the same district. There was a gentleman that preceded me who came back after 31 years, but he came back to a different district. So the distinction is that I was able to be reelected over 20 years later in the same congressional district.

How did you come up with the idea to honor Elijah Cummings with a commemorative stamp?

It was in early December, and I had been looking back over the dedication of his portrait and the naming of a room for him in the Rayburn Building at the Capitol. I got plaques made for both of his daughters, which they still don't know I have; this is gonna be a big surprise for them. It's the photo of the event and the program of the event with both of them staring at the photograph. I was thinking about it, and I thought, honestly, What else could I do? The notion of a commemorative stamp came up, and my office contacted the family to see if they would be opposed to something like that. They thought it was a great idea and that it would be fitting for Elijah's legacy and they were very supportive. They issued a statement to go with the release on this that we printed and they were also happy that I became the Chair of the Elijah Cummings Youth Program, which Elijah had started with Black and Jewish high schoolers. Following his death, it was easy for me to step into that role and agree to serve on the board to ensure that the work of Elijah goes on. So this stamp is a continuation of the street naming which took place in Baltimore, the continuation of the room dedication, portrait dedication, and now the commemorative stamp.

How was the response to the introduction of the stamp by your colleagues in the House?

I offered it one day and three days later, we had 49 co-sponsors and I'm sure we're well over that now. So there has been a great acceptance of the idea. The key now is to make sure we just keep our foot on the gas so that this comes to fruition. 

As a part of the new Congress, you watched Rep. Hakeem Jefferies be sworn in as Minority Leader of the House. How did it feel to witness that?

It was a rare historical moment that you really can't appreciate until after the moment passes and all I could think about was the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, some of whom I served with. While their aspirations were to one day see a Black person become a Speaker of the House, if you would have asked any of them at the time, they would have said, Yeah, but we don't know how far into the future that it would happen. None of us knew that it wouldn't happen until 2023. So I sat across from Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, those nights when Kevin McCarthy couldn't seem to get votes. When we went through each roll call, I sat across the aisle from him, and studied, as best I could, what his emotions were and what his understanding of that moment was. It was clear to me that he clearly understood that he was on the shoulders of a lot of people and failure would not be an option. God, not the 218 members of the caucus, had really put him in that place at that time, which is why I always say everything is providential. I just thought he felt all of that. Each time the vote went around, all of us had the opportunity to vote verbally for him on the floor. So that’s why I said it was a rare historical moment that yet really can't appreciate until it passes because in the moment, there are so many things going on that’s history, but you don't see it as history. Then when the moment passes, it all hits you and you realize how fortunate you were to be there to witness it and to participate.

In your view, what is the future of the Democratic Party?

Well, the Democratic Party, being as diverse as it is, I think it continues to set the stage for politics in this country into the future. You know, Geraldine Ferraro, running as she did way back when, as the first woman candidate for Vice President on a major ticket; Shirley Chisholm, the first woman on her own to run, with other Democrats, stepping out on faith, to do something that no one else had done; the naming of some of the early Black members of Congress to committees, which had always been committees headed by white people. The Democratic Party is not perfect, but it does have a sense of where the future is, what it will look like, and how to get there. We get there by opening up the party and making it a party for everybody and which causes great peril. I forget who said it but the saying goes, “I'm not a member of any organized party, I'm a Democrat” [Laughs]. Sometimes it takes us a little longer but every time we get to a goal, it's the goal that we wanted. 

We've got to remember, the Democratic Party broke off from the Dixiecrats Party, that broke off from the Republicans coming out of slavery. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, the first Black members of the House and the Senate, right after Reconstruction in the 1870s, and the 1880s were Black Republicans. At the turn of the century, through the Harlem Renaissance, and up to the Great Depression, the Republican Party had a strong lock on Black voters, those who could vote and who were able to get around suppression tactics like the grandfather clause and other things. They were all Republicans until the New Deal came about after the Great Depression. Black communities of America were hit so very hard that people began to look differently at the Democratic Party with the New Deal by F.D.R. With the implementation of Social Security and the CCC jobs program from that point in the 1940s, up until the civil rights movement in the early 60s, there was this period of time where the Republican hold was not as strong as it had been and the Democratic hold on the on Black voters was not as strong as it could be. But after the Civil Rights Movement all that changed, so that by 1970 most Black people were registered as Democrats. I registered in 1971 when you had to be 21, at the time. I registered as a Democrat almost automatically, because that's when the shift in the movement toward Democrats and Black voters really took place.

Lastly, what advice would you give to anyone considering pursuing a career in public service?

The first thing I would say, is don't do it, to get something on your resume, or to get the title of Honorable in front of your name, on a business card, or to have something to do if you're not dedicated principally; otherwise, you're really wasting your time, and wasting the time of a Black community that really needs dedicated elected officials that are going to work day in and day out. The other thing is, if you are considering something like that, you have to do an integrity check. Because this requires integrity to be able to do what you do and say what you say when nobody's looking. It just doesn't mean doing it at the right time when everybody else is doing it. Integrity is being able to do and hold on.

So for those people who are really serious and eager, and want to get involved, all politics is local. That's where they should start not because Elijah and I started at a very local level, with political organizations and working the streets but that's the best way to learn the craft and it's also the best way to stay humble.