The NAACP celebrates its centennial anniversary this year, but it is by no means sclerotic, nor on life support. In fact, the nation’s oldest and largest civil-rights organization is thriving, says its president and CEO, Benjamin Todd Jealous.
“Despite the economic crisis the country is enduring, we’re doing surprisingly well here,” he began. “Our membership is up twelve percent … and we just expanded our budget for the year by $2 million, and our fundraising is running ahead of schedule. And we will be hiring twenty people over the next four months.”
Jealous would be the last to admit it, but many believe his arrival is the cause of the renewed energy and the bright financial picture. Not only has he begun to restructure the organization along corporate lines, but he has also established a resourceful network of donors from his past affiliations, insists Fred Beauford, a former editor of The Crisis, the organization’s magazine. “That the NAACP is in the black, literally and figuratively,” Beauford asserts, “may stem from Ben’s powerful Rolodex and his ability to get major contributions from companies and individuals.”
If there is any truth to this, that information is not forthcoming from the 36-year-old youthful leader. However, a cursory glance at Jealous’s impressive résumé and there is no refuting the matrix of associations and influential connections. Before taking charge at the NAACP, he served as president of the Rosenberg Foundation, a private independent institution that funds civil- and human-rights advocacy to benefit California’s working families. For several years, he was the director of the U.S. Human Rights Program at Amnesty International and at one time was executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), a federation of more than 200 Black community newspapers.
His current leadership role at the NAACP is not his first brush with the organization. As a student at Columbia University, he worked as a community organizer for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. It was a political activism instilled by his parents that got him bounced from Columbia and on a journalistic odyssey to Mississippi and to The Jackson Advocate, with a brief tenure there as managing editor.
Having acquired a wealth of experience at the core of social issues, Jealous returned to Columbia in 1997 and completed his degree in political science. Given his outstanding scholarship and maturity, he was encouraged to apply to Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. He was accepted and earned a master’s degree in comparative social research.
Some of that expertise gained at Oxford and elsewhere is critical to his agenda at the NAACP. “My agenda here is really three things,” Jealous told The Network Journal recently in an exclusive interview. “It boils down to new schools, jobs and justice. Too many of our schools are an embarrassment to everything this country stands for. They are segregated, the discipline situation is out of control, and too many students are arrested for minor offenses.
“As for employment, well, that leaves a lot to be desired,” Jealous continued. “Racial discrimination is still a problem, especially in the low-wage economy. On top of this is the age-old ‘last hired, first fired’ phenomenon.” To improve this condition, he said, the NAACP is reaching out to a number of employers, stressing the need to end any form of racial discrimination, particularly against formerly incarcerated people.
Jealous expressed a special umbrage at the policy of “tough on crime,” which he feels has run its course. “Rather than our politicians focusing on who’s the toughest, they should be focused on what’s most effective,” he said. “And we’ve seen some good changes recently, for example, in New York with the abolishing of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and the death penalty in New Mexico.”
Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico did the right thing, Jealous contends, “because he understood that we spend about a half million dollars more giving the ultimatum punishment, giving the death penalty to criminals we have already caught … and this money could be better spent pursuing other criminals.”
On the subject of the criminal justice system, the NAACP’s chief is excited by the appointment of Eric Holder as U.S. Attorney General. “The [Obama] administration’s position of the disparity of sentences between crack and powder cocaine is a good sign that they and the Justice Department are moving in the right direction,” Jealous noted. “I have faith that we’ll see even more reform in the criminal justice department.”
President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, a Hispanic, to fill the vacancy left by David Souter on the Supreme Court also pleases Jealous. “We’re thrilled by this because she has the track record … and the exact temperament we need,” he explained. “Moreover, she had been nominated to the bench by George Bush I and promoted by Bill Clinton, so she’s been confirmed by the Senate twice and there shouldn’t be any reason why she shouldn’t be confirmed again. She’s exactly what this country needs.”
What about President Obama, is he exactly what America needs at this moment? “Absolutely,” Jealous declares. “He’s doing a very good job. He’s found the space to be courageous … he’s been consistent about what’s right. As long as he keeps putting one foot in front of the other and moving the ball down the court, I think a lot of people will continue to be patient. There are a lot of things he hasn’t done yet, but so far, so good.”
And the same can be said for Ben Jealous as he steers his organization into the next century. When told of an
article written by professor Charles Ogletree of the Harvard Law School commending the NAACP and citing its continuing relevance, he was elated. “I was very glad that Tree wrote that letter,” he said. “We’ve come a long way over the last one hundred years and we have a lot to celebrate. But we still have a lot to do when you consider our young people are the most murdered and the most incarcerated on the planet … the number of Black Americans with AIDS is disproportional and the Black unemployment rate is reaching twenty percent. So, you see, we have a lot of very important work to do.”