The story is told again and again by the candidate whose name once was Frizzell Gray.
As he tells it, there was a haze. A halo. A soft, welcoming light that enveloped him like melted honey.
"In the middle of the night, in the middle of the summer, in the middle of a crap game" -- as he now describes the scene -- Gray was turned away from gangs and drugs and crime by an extraordinary vision. On a corner in West Baltimore in 1972, he saw a golden cloud of light, and in it his late mother's face.
"I didn't know," he told her. "I couldn't see."
The story, as told, is fantastic, unreal. But oh, is it ever told: the story of his life's conversion, the moment when Frizzell Gray was no more.
"He died," Kweisi Mfume, a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Maryland, says of Gray, the delinquent he was before that epiphany -- and a name change in the 1970s. "He died that night on the street corner in the middle of the summer, in the middle of the crap game."
Never mind that this is not quite true, that the new Mfume contains a lot of the old Frizzell -- the young operator who made money at a nightclub taking Polaroid portraits or the even younger kid who used to play deejay, using a spoon as his microphone. Never mind that the skeletons in his closet did not stop accumulating in 1972.
The tale of Mfume the man and, now, Mfume the candidate is to a significant extent the story of The Story, living it and learning to tell it.
A Biography That Resonates There's one easy way to tell you're not at a rally for Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, Mfume's well-regarded but un-funky chief rival in their party's primary Sept. 12. That would be when the political speeches are preceded by the "Electric Slide." So it was at a Saturday afternoon campaign barbecue in Brandywine this month. Mfume did the "Slide" with the crowd and then got on stage to speak. He started with policy: There are 46 million people in the United States without health insurance. One in six children live in poverty. In some schools, he said, "drugs are more available than textbooks."
Mfume hits these points often on the stump. He has called for improving teacher retention, introducing a single-payer universal health-care system and starting to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. On policy issues, he and Cardin are often not far apart.
Then, Mfume moved to the subject on which he has starkly different views from his opponent's: biography.
"My mother died in my arms when I was 16 years of age," Mfume said.
He continued: "I was arrested time after time." He became a teenage parent. Then, he escaped that life. He left out, as he sometimes does, the details of the epiphany.
That led Mfume, as it always does, back to the present and to politics.
"We've got to say to young people, 'You are something,' " Mfume said.
It is a story that resonates at events such as that one, where most of the crowd was, like Mfume, black, as well as at others. Hearing his telling of his history made Mfume converts out of five white women from the Frederick area, Democratic activists who call themselves "the Catoctin Crones."
"You could just tell as he's going on that he's uncovering himself. He's discovering himself," said Susan Derse of Frederick. "It was beautiful."
The story has made impressions in churches and lecture halls -- Mfume made $174,000 from speaking engagements last year, according to a financial disclosure statement. It went over big at Leisure World in Montgomery County, in front of a largely white, largely elderly audience. People gasped when he mentioned that he had fathered five children out of wedlock.
But at the end, he received a standing ovation.
"He owned the room," said George L. Leventhal (D), chairman of the Montgomery County Council.
'He Wanted More'The story begins here: Frizzell Gray was born in 1948 in Turners Station, a black community in Baltimore County. When he was 11, after his stepfather moved out, the family moved to West Baltimore. That neighborhood -- a swath of rowhouses that has decayed into a boarded-up, burned-out wasteland -- would be the setting for the toughest parts of his life.
It was there that his mother died at 40 in April 1965, collapsing in Frizzell's arms just a few months after telling her son that she had cancer.
And it was on those streets that, after his mother's death, Mfume says he fell into carrying guns, hanging out with gang members and fathering children. Between May 1968 and January 1970, he had five sons by four women.
"I gave new meaning to the phrase 'sowing wild oats,' " he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, "No Free Ride."
This period, in later years, would serve as the low point of The Story: the depth of despair just before his street corner epiphany. But even in that time, friend Carlitta Coates said, she saw a spark.
She said Mfume would bring a Polaroid camera and an improvised photo backdrop to the Crystal Ballroom club and charge clubgoers for instant portraits.
"His hustle of taking pictures -- that's what singled him out from the rest," said Coates, who gave birth to Mfume's son Michael in 1970. "He wanted more, and I could tell that."
Then, in 1972, came the acknowledged turnaround point in his life, the night when the golden cloud found him at the craps game.
"It's the one thing I think about every day," Mfume, 57, said in a recent interview, sitting behind a desk at his Baltimore campaign office a little more than a mile from the spot where it happened. "It's what saved my life."
Other people have opinions on how Frizzell Gray righted his life. Maybe it was the need to set an example for his kids. Maybe it was the influence of adults in his life. Maybe the desire to do good was in him all along.
Mfume's version is now, as it has been for years, that he had a Saul-going-to-Damascus moment at Laurens and Division streets.
"He said something had come over him, and he just felt like he had to turn his life around," his sister LaWana Gray said. "We were like, 'What do you mean, something came over [you]?' He said he couldn't explain."
A 'Conquering Son'After that moment, Mfume said, his new self needed a new name. A relative who was traveling to Africa brought back words from a language in Ghana that she said meant "conquering son of kings." Frizzell was angry. He had asked for names, choices, but she had just one, written on a brown paper bag.
"The only question I could get out was, 'Is this it?' You know, 'Are there others?' " Mfume recalled. After a while, though, he said, it began to feel comfortable.
He went back to school, first at the Community College of Baltimore and then at Morgan State University. He became a real radio deejay, but there were still traces of the boy with the spoon, working intensely to improve his voice and persona.
"I used to love to just watch him gear himself up for that instant when he went on the air," said George Buntin, a college friend who hung out with Mfume in the studio. While songs were playing, they'd talk, joke, play chess. Then, as the last song faded, Mfume's focus shifted, going over his deejay's "rap" in his head.
"He'd start tapping one foot. You'd see that serious appearance on his face," Buntin said.
Buntin saw where it was headed. When Mfume called to say he was running for Baltimore City Council in 1979, Buntin's reply was: "Why'd it take so long? Let's go."
Mfume won by three votes. After seven years on the council, he jumped into a U.S. House of Representatives race in 1986.
That, Mfume said, was when his life story became a political issue for the first time -- his Republican opponent held a news conference to criticize Mfume's having children out of wedlock.
It backfired, Mfume said, because people in the area knew that he was trying to be a good father to the boys. The unmarried father won 87 percent of the vote.
"It occurred to me," he says now, "that maybe there was some power to this story."
Controversy at the NAACPMfume, who lives in Baltimore, served nine years in Congress, becoming chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, then left his seat in 1996 to head the NAACP.
At each of these steps, the story he was telling about himself had a new and better ending.
At each step, the man with the radio-honed voice was learning to tell it better.
In real life, however, the happy ending hasn't been as neat.
His departure from the NAACP in 2004 was marred by a memo reporting that office rumors linked Mfume, who is divorced, with seven women at the organization and suggested that he gave them raises and promotions.
Prepared by an NAACP lawyer after an extensive inquiry into an employee's complaint, it detailed reports of two confrontations -- one an argument, one with a punch thrown -- among women alleged to be competing for his attention.
Mfume has said since that the allegations of favoritism were not corroborated.
Neither Julian Bond, the group's chairman, nor Myrlie Evers-Williams, the chairwoman when Mfume was hired, returned phone messages left for them in recent weeks. Hazel N. Dukes, who heads the NAACP's New York state conference, said she didn't believe that the allegations against Mfume should overshadow actions such as embracing the Internet and reaching out to young people.
The scandal "was blown out of proportion in many respects," Dukes said. "That would not be his legacy at the organization."
Regardless, the public release of the report just weeks after he announced his Senate bid had a staggering effect on the early stage of Mfume's campaign, casting a pall on his fundraising efforts.
A Campaign of PossibilitiesMfume still does not have much money -- $171,000 on hand to Cardin's $2.6 million at last count -- or much of an organization or much advertising.
To counter all that, he has considerable charisma and The Story, which promises that anything is possible.
"Every time I think I've seen everything that God can do in my life," he told parishioners at Baltimore's Heritage United Church of Christ one recent Sunday. "Lo!" -- he banged a fist on the pulpit -- "and behold, He does something."
For this race, that could be enough: Recent polls show that Mfume and Cardin are running close.
But even if he wins, what about Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the presumed Republican nominee? How would Mfume's background look when paired against that of another black politician, this one a former seminarian?
"It's always a character issue for him, but usually character works for him," said Matthew A. Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor. "This time, it may also work against him."
Or maybe it won't work at all: Saul Hoch, 89, was in the crowd at Mfume's Leisure World appearance. He wasn't put off by Mfume's stories about drugs and gangs and a miraculous turnaround.
But he wasn't won over, either.
"I wanted to hear more about his policy or his policy approaches," Hoch said. "It's fine that he did all these wonderful things, and I admire him for doing it. But that doesn't make him a good senator."
For now, however, Mfume is still telling The Story, selling an inspiring, streamlined version of himself.
Frizzell Gray is dead, he says. Kweisi Mfume is alive.
Really, he's both of them.
"You know, he hasn't changed a bit," said Coates, the mother of one of Mfume's sons. Years ago, before his epiphany, he would work long hours at an auto shop, captive to his own drive, she remembered.
"He couldn't wait for the point that he could take a breather," she said. "And that hasn't happened yet."