Former Philadelphia NAACP leader J. Whyatt "Jerry" Mondesire, a charismatic activist and a fixture in the city's political circles, died Sunday night at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, according to a family statement.
"The family wants to thank everyone for their love and support," the statement read. The family did not cite a cause of death, but relayed that he was surrounded by relatives and close friends.
A family friend told The Inquirer on Saturday night that Mondesire, 65, was having dialysis at Chestnut Hill Hospital on Friday when he suffered a brain aneurysm. Mondesire was then transferred to Jefferson, where he was placed on a ventilator, the family friend said.
Mondesire, a former reporter and editor with The Inquirer and publisher of the Philadelphia Sun, was named chief of the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP in 1991. In 2014, Mondesire and three local board members were suspended by the national office over a feud stemming from allegations of misuse of chapter funds.
Nation of Islam minister Rodney Muhammad was subsequently elected as the new president of the Philadelphia NAACP in December 2014.
Before Mondesire led that organization, he worked in the 1980's as an aide to U.S. Rep William H. Gray 3d, earning a reputation as one of the most powerful political operatives in the city.
Many members of those circles were quick to express their grief Sunday night, after news broke that Mondesire had died.
Former Mayor Wilson Goode, who first met Mondesire in the 1970's, said "his service has been missed, and will be missed. It's a life that was cut too short too soon."
City Council President Darrell Clarke said in a statement, "Whether you agreed with him or not, Jerry's passion for equal representation and opportunity for all was undeniable."
And mayoral candidate Jim Kenney wrote on Twitter, "I am sad and really going to miss Jerry. He has finally reached the end of his Freedom Trail and is in the arms of God. RIP."
As Philadelphia president of the NAACP, Mondesire was often compared to Cecil B. Moore, who was president during the 1960s. The men were similar physically: sturdy men with slick hair, thick mustaches and fair skin.
While working for Gray, Mondesire also developed connections and relationships with city leaders that would last for decades, his friends said. Former Philadelphia city councilman George Burrell said that during Mondesire's time as a Congressional aide, he was "one of the 2 or 3 most powerful unelected people in Philadelphia."
Mondesire likely could have parlayed that influence into a plush gig away from the spotlight, Burrell said. But activism seemed part of his DNA.
"There are lots of people like Jerry who, at some point in their lives, want to stop doing good and start doing well," he said. "I don't think Jerry ever got to that point. He wanted life for African Americans to be better."
In 2004, then-NAACP president Kweisi Mfume praised Mondesire for his dedication.
"He's a good leader," Mfume said told The Inquirer. "It doesn't mean that Jerry Mondesire is right all the time. He is not. But in order to make change, you have to be involved. Jerry is involved."
However, he had his critics.
Thomas Logan, a former branch board member who ran against Mondesire for president in 2001, was not impressed with Mondesire's confrontational ways.
"It became not about the NAACP, but Jerry," Logan said in 2004. "People talked more about Jerry than the NAACP."
Mondesire was reared in Harlem. His mother was a member of the Abyssinian Baptist Church led by Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first African American to represent New York City in Congress. His father had been a follower of black nationalist Marcus Garvey.
He was a member of the NAACP High School Youth Council. Back then, he said to The Inquirer in 2004, the national board was made up of a bunch of folks who just weren't angry enough. The Youth Council, for example, criticized then-NAACP leader Roy Wilkins for not opposing the Vietnam War.
"We were always battling the internal leadership, and they were always trying to figure out ways to close down the Youth Council," he told The Inquirer.
After his father died, Mondesire abandoned plans for law school and started a career in journalism. It was the closest he could get to activism without an expensive law degree. He became an assistant city editor at The Inquirer before leaving to become an assistant to U.S. Rep. William H. Gray 3d. He helped form policies.
In 1991, Gray unexpectedly resigned from Congress, leaving Mondesire with a few "shekels," he said, and no job. The next year, he started the weekly newspaper the Philadelphia Sunday Sun. Mondesire went to the NAACP, seeking support.
"I went to a meeting, and it was just chaos," Mondesire said in 2004.
"So I talked to my old political colleagues, and we figured out a strategy. . . . We wanted to reform it. Make it into something respectable and bring it into the 21st century."
The work, he had said, "is personally rewarding. I'm proud. Even my children seem proud of what we are trying to accomplish."
Mondesire also was known locally for a blistering commentary in the Sun in 2005 about former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Mondesire wrote that McNabb was a "mediocre talent" who is "hiding behind excuses dripping in make-believe racial stereotypes" for refusing to run the football more often."