NAACP president Ben Jealous reflects on March on Washington

Ben Jealous being interviewed at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

Ben Jealous being interviewed at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. (Photo by Alexis Garrett Stodghill)

“50 years ago, Dr. King shared his dream with the world, and described a vision for society that offered to deliver the promise of justice under law,” Attorney General Eric Holder said at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington rally on Saturday. “He assured his fellow citizens that his goal was in reach.”

Moved to further reach towards King’s goal, thousands were drawn to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to recreate the magic of the original 1963 gathering at which many civil rights organizations collaborated.

Before the now-iconic ’63 march, leaders of the NAACP were ambivalent about the possible outcome of the demonstration, concerned that a show of militancy would harm burgeoning plans for federal civil rights legislation.

This time the storied organization acted robustly in concert with various groups after years of leading the way in coalition building by example.

“We at the NAACP have gotten back to our roots of organizing across racial lines,” Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, told theGrio. From the broad landing leading to the Lincoln Memorial, Jealous added that under his leadership the NAACP has worked to unite progressive activists, “across all the lines that divide in our society.”

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NAACP joins with many forces for change

In recent years, the NAACP became one of the first entities to announce that it would be expanding its protective efforts in the area of civil rights to include the rights of women, gay people, and immigrants.

This is a big change from 1963, when March on Washington leaders called for greater economic and racial equality without drawing attention to injustices that impacted women, immigrants, or the LGBT community.

Today, the National Action Network, and others who organized the 50th anniversary march, successfully brought attention to these issues and more, including those affecting workers and youth.

The march on Saturday even covered immigration and the environment in its enhanced group of concerns. Why?

In addition to seeking moral expediency, the modern road towards social equality is one of political activity in the day-to-day sphere on the local level, Jealous said.

This requires building strong coalitions.

The need for coalition building

“Today our primary tool is legislation passed on the state level,” Jealous said Saturday of broadly uniting on the left. “To get that done in a democracy, you need a majority of people, and that requires us to deal with big, diverse, complex coalitions of people. When we do that, there’s no stopping us.”

This means that large, public exhibitions like the march must be successfully complemented by legislation in the coming years. To achieve this, it will take working with groups many African-Americans had not heretofore deeply engaged with.

“What folks in the progressive community have done, and what we’ve helped lead them in doing, is to take up the motto of the Three Musketeers,” Jealous elaborated. “All for one, one for all, and all become stronger and more effective in that instance.”

Growing stronger through unification

Jealous is hopeful that an evolution towards unity will be easy. A towering man, he easily encapsulated how Saturday’s march can transition into change, as he looked out over the thousands of people still gathering under the sparkling sun. The diverse crowd readily accepted the rainbow of speakers taking the podium behind him, representing the gay, Sikh, Islamic, and many other communities.

As a parallel, he noted that the original organizers of the NAACP were “multiracial” in scope and included a substantial number of women — plus the fact that the organizer of the ’63 March on Washington was a gay man, pointing to the power of inclusiveness.

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Stressing that coalition building is more important that ever, Jealous pointed to recent wins secured by the NAACP while working closely with others.

Primary examples include the recent curtailment of New York City’s controversial Stop and Frisk policy, which many believe is executed through racial profiling, and the achievement of marriage equality in Maryland.

Calls to social media activism

“Organized people can always win, but we must be organized,” Jealous said. While excited about the gathering in D.C., he said that advancements in social media and other tools, which were not available to his predecessors, are also the keys to new movements.

“The most important thing people can do at home, if you haven’t signed the petition that will be sent to the U.S. Department of Justice, is to go to NAACP.org and do that right now,” he said. The NAACP is petitioning the Department of Justice to bring federal hate crime charges against George Zimmerman, who says he killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen, in self-defense. Zimmerman was acquitted of second degree murder and manslaughter charges.

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“We’re going to take it to the Department of Justice next week. If you are [reading] this on your cell phone, smart phone or iPad, you can text Trayvon to 62227, and get the petition that way. In other words, if you are at home, there is no excuse today not to be organized, not to be involved.”

Jealous surveyed the growing audience appreciatively, impressed by the turnout and fortified by the multitude.  Experience has shown him that just the presence of thousands peacefully assembling, no matter how different, shows these groups can work well together.

“I have been coming to marches and helping to organize marches for 20 years,” he affirmed.

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.