Civil Rights Pioneer Presents New Face: Young President of the 100-Year-Old NAACP

November 02, 2009
November 2, 2009 — A historic moment took place Friday when civil rights pioneer Julian Bond sat down to interview the youngest president of the NAACP, Benjamin Todd Jealous, as part of a University of Virginia symposium that explored the 100-year history of the civil rights organization.

Before an audience of about 100 participants at the free event, Bond asked, "You weren't born until almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education. How did it affect you?"

Jealous said he was the only black child on his bus to a white school – that was "desegregation."

The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies hosted a two-day symposium to celebrate the NAACP's 100th anniversary and discuss "Advancing Civil Rights and Social Justice for a Century." The event, held Thursday and Friday in the auditorium of the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature, and Culture/Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, was sponsored by Verizon and the U.Va. offices of the Vice President for Research, ExecutiveVice President and Provost, Vice Provost for Faculty Recruitment and Retention, and Printing Services.

Bond's interview with Jealous was recorded for the "Explorations in Black Leadership" series, part of the University's Institute for Public History, led by Bond and Phyllis Leffler, who introduced the pair. To date, they have recorded close to 50 interviews, Leffler said, with Bond talking to such luminaries as Roger Wilkins, Mary Berry, Johnetta Cole, Dick Gregory and Vernon Jordan.

Prompted by Bond's direct, cogent questions, Jealous delved into a range of issues in their hour-long conversation.

"The Brown decision signaled the end of separate discriminatory repressive practices ... in other areas," such as going to restaurants and other public places, having more work opportunities, Jealous said, but schools are now actually more segregated and unequal in quality than ever.

The Brown decision has been seen by some as a source of frustration, he said.

Education is one of the areas in which Jealous is directing the NAACP to redouble its efforts, he said in remarks before the interview. Others include health care, over-incarceration – "the next dragon to slay" – and taking the NAACP into the 21st century by employing technology in spreading its messages and work. In less than a year in his new post, Jealous already has installed a "rapid report" system online where people can report incidents that might be hate crimes or involve police bias using iPhones, cell phones, Blackberries or computers.

For the election of Barack Obama, NAACP technology "blasted" voter registration forms to add some 20,000 new voters.

When Bond asked Jealous about his influences, Jealous cited his parents – a black mother who was a schoolteacher and a white father whose traditional New England family disowned him when he married her – as a living example. Interracial marriages were illegal in Baltimore; instead, they went to Washington, D.C., and eventually settled in Monterey, Calif. His parents straddled the civil rights and peace movements and took their son to protests and other activities related to both causes.

He always knew he was black, he said, not just because of the law (being a minimum of 1/32 black), but also because his mother's extended family opened wide many arms in accepting them.

His grandmother was a consummate storyteller and his grandfather owned a bar where the youngster could hang out, debating with older folks. Jealous was in the position of having about 20 mentors who were black men, he said. The group later included college professors and spiritual leaders.

Jealous' parents encouraged him to take on his first community-organizing project – voter registration – when he was 14. Until the end of high school, he was a short, nervous, stuttering, lone black kid, he said. During his college years, he became more confrontational, he said.

He attended Columbia University in the early 1990s and led protests to increase the numbers of African-American studies courses and faculty. After one incident of climbing in a window to a board meeting, he was suspended. He spent a year doing civil rights work, returned to Columbia, earned his degree and won a Rhodes Scholarship.

He worked for six years in leadership roles in nonprofit organizations, including director of Amnesty International USA's Domestic Human Rights Program for three years and most recently as president of the San Francisco-based Rosenberg Foundation, which supports social justice organizations. Before that, he spent three years as executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, an organization of 200 black-owned community newspapers.

Today at 36, Jealous is the youngest leader of the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organization in the country, and has learned to be more tolerant, he said.

Jealous told the story of going to Mississippi with several other black men to campaign for Obama. At a restaurant, an old white man kept staring at the group until all the men got nervous when the guy sauntered over to them. It turned out he wanted to shake their hands and tell them he was proud of them for demanding their rights – but also in the process used the "N-word" to address them.

"You never know where you'll find allies," Jealous said. "I'm always trying to figure out how to talk to everyone."

What led you to this career in social justice? Bond asked.

Jealous replied he considered no other path. "Nothing seemed nobler than pursuit of finishing the American experiment."

Part of his foundation is Jesus' principle of treating others as you want to be treated, Jealous said, but he also feels indebted to ancestors who surrounded him.

Bond asked if successful African Americans have an obligation to give back.

"Everyone should extend the ladder of opportunity. ... It's scandalous not to recognize your obligations," said Jealous, who said his greatest contribution as a leader so far is giving voice to frustration and hope, as well as working on NAACP cases such as freeing innocent men on death row.

"There's a danger if we don't recommit to attaining a sense of connectedness," he said.

Bond asked Jealous about the future. Although one's race or ethnic identity ought to be affirmed, Jealous said, ultimately it will be limiting in gaining wider political or social consensus.

"All yearn to live beyond race," he said.

The audio and video recordings of the interview will be available on U.Va.'s YouTube site and the Explorations in Black Leadership site.

Bond gave the keynote address for the symposium, and panels of local and visiting participants discussed desegregation in education, voting rights, equal access to housing and public accommodations, environmental justice, police brutality and fair employment practices.

— By Anne Bromley