NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous recently announced he will step down from his position leading the 104-year-old civil rights organization by the end of the year.
The question is, what legacy does the 40-year-old leader leave for the NAACP?
The answer is a more invigorated, dynamic and relevant civil rights movement.
At the age of 35, Jealous assumed the leadership of the largest and oldest civil rights organization in 2008. He was the youngest CEO in the history of the NAACP, and with degrees from Columbia and Oxford, the Rhodes Scholar is arguably the best educated to lead.
On a basic level, Ben Jealous is credited with growing the organization during his tenure, including expanding the NAACP’s donor base from 16,000 to over 132,000 people, its online activists from 175,000 to over 675,000, and increasing total activists to over 1 million people.
Further, under his direction, the NAACP has delved into the cutting-edge issues facing the U.S., and the black community in particular. In the area of criminal justice, the NAACP has operated at the front lines of the battle against an unjust and racially biased U.S. death penalty. Jealous made the NAACP a major player in the repeal of the death penalty in Connecticut and in Maryland, where the organization’s headquarters are based. And the group was part of the effort to save Troy Davis, who was executed by the state of Georgia two years ago this month, despite serious problems in the murder case and strong evidence pointing to Davis’s innocence.
With respect to voting rights, the NAACP was engaged in a massive voter registration campaign for the 2012 election, the largest in the organization’s history. The NAACP deployed 2,300 volunteers across the country, registering 374,553 voters and mobilizing 1.2 million voters to go to the polls on Election Day. Black voter participation is now higher than for any other demographic group, and the NAACP can take its share of the credit for making that happen.
“I met the news of the resignation of Ben Jealous as president and CEO of the NAACP with mixed emotions. I am happy that he has done so well and leaves his post with no scandal, shame, or physical challenges, and young enough to have a bright future,” Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network (NAN) and MSNBC said in a written statement.
“There is sadness, however, because for the last several years he has joined Marc Morial, (National Urban League) Melanie Campbell (National Coalition on Black Civic Participation), and me as we tried to broaden the civil rights leadership of the 21st century movement,” Sharpton added. Sharpton reflected on Jealous, who was first arrested protesting the NYPD killing of Amadou Diallo, in civil disobedience actions Sharpton led. Recently, Jealous worked with Rev. Sharpton during the campaign for justice for Trayvon Martin in Florida.
In addition, Jealous participated with Sharpton and Martin Luther King III in the March on Washington 50th Anniversary March to Continue the Dream, which was spearheaded by NAN.
For those who have observed the NAACP over the years, there is no denying that the rise of Ben Jealous represents a new template for the civil rights movement. Over the years, mature civil rights establishment groups such as the NAACP developed a reputation for holding chicken dinners and holding on to the past—and little else.
Despite their years of success at fighting segregation and breaking down barriers—or perhaps because of them—some old-guard civil rights organizations became old, rusty, dusty and increasingly threatened with irrelevance. Rightly proud of their past accomplishments from the 1950s and 1960s, they could not remain fresh to speak to the concerns of young people, and the issues that impact them.
However, the NAACP under Ben Jealous has mobilized a new generation around a new host of issues, such as stop and frisk in New York, immigrants’ rights and Arizona’s racial profiling law, and marriage equality. Jealous showed true leadership when he made comparisons between the current debate on marriage for LGBT couples and the struggles his black mother and white father faced when interracial marriage was illegal.
“You have to excuse me,” said Jealous, choking up. “I’m a bit moved. My parents’ own marriage was against the law at the time and they had to return here to Baltimore after getting married in Washington, D.C. And the procession back was mistaken for a funeral procession because it was so quixotic to people to see all these cars with these headlights on, having to go from one city all the way to the next just so they could have a party after they got married in their own home. This is an important day.”
In 2010, NAACP delegates passed a resolution to condemn racial extremism in the Tea Party, as the organization boldly released a report tying white nationalist groups and militias to the tea party movement. According to the report, tea party events have enabled extremists “hoping to push these (white) protesters toward a more self-conscious and ideological white supremacy.”
To be sure, there were missteps and distractions for Jealous, the most notable being the debacle over Shirley Sherrod. Sherrod was a black USDA official who was forced to resign after a doctored video surfaced, in which she spoke at an NAACP fundraiser in Georgia and apparently spoke about discriminating against a white farmer who sought government help.
Jealous first condemned Sherrod, noting he was “appalled” by her actions, then subsequently backtracked, admitting the NAACP had been “snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias.” It was not a shining moment for the former head of the National Newspaper Publishers Association.
But then again, bold leadership means sticking one’s neck out, and even making mistakes at times. Dynamic leaders such as Ben Jealous have helped to put the boldness back in black leadership. Given the myriad challenges facing America, and the rollback of civil rights, that is a good thing.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove