Young civil rights leader called a ‘breath of fresh air’
by Hazel Trice Edney, NNPA Editor in Chief
Baltimore (NNPA) – Already mapping a strategy to maximize Black voter participation and issues in the general election Nov. 4, former Black Press executive Benjamin Todd Jealous has been named the new national president of the NAACP.
“My primary goals are to make sure that the Black surge that we saw in the primary is repeated in the general election and to make sure that we have both an agenda for the transitioning government that will be happening in January as well as for this next century,” said Jealous in an NNPA interview just moments after the official announcement of his appointment to lead the 99-year-old civil rights organization, the nation’s oldest.
“We have one heck of a batting average and we need to maintain it,” he said of the record voter turnouts during the primary. “It’s to make sure that we are as strong of a player in this century as well as the next. So, a lot of this is about raising money, it’s about the use of technology, it’s about rebuilding the staff.”
Jealous, who will start the job Sept. 1, has an extensive resume, immersed in civil rights. He is a former managing editor of Mississippi’s historic Jackson Advocate. In 2000, he became executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the Black Press of America. He left NNPA after three years to become director of Amnesty International’s U.S. Human Rights Program. He comes to the NAACP from the San Francisco-based Rosenberg Foundation, which he has served as president since 2005.
A positive aura exuded from the horde of beaming civil rights leaders as Jealous stood outside of the organization’s Baltimore headquarters alongside board chairman Julian Bond, vice chair Roslyn Brock and other supporters from the 64-member board that voted to hire him. However, no one denied the reality of the daunting challenge ahead given the major problems that have plagued the organization in recent years.
Former Verizon executive Bruce Gordon resigned abruptly in February last year after a 19-month presidency with the organization. He cited irreconcilable differences with the board.
Four months later Chairman Bond made a national appeal for board members and NAACP supporters to “show some love” to the NAACP by giving money.
Interim CEO Dennis Hayes, who stepped into leadership behind Gordon, had announced staff cuts at the Baltimore headquarters from 119 to 70 people. He said the organization had used more than $10 million in reserves to cover shortfalls following the presidency of former Congressman Kweisi Mfume.
Despite financial woes, which are intrinsic to most civil and human rights organizations, Bond has steadily pointed to the social ills of America and the necessity of voter registration as the greatest priority of the organization.
The selection of Jealous means going from Gordon, a corporate executive who had never participated in a civil rights march, to a young but seasoned civil rights advocate with a background involved in the priority issues of the NAACP, including voter registration and education.
“Of the many people that we interviewed, he was head and shoulders above the others for this reason,” says Bond. “He has spent his entire professional life working on the issues that the NAACP holds dear. He has spent his entire professional life raising money for organizations much like the NAACP. He is in sync with the NAACP to a high degree and we are very happy to have him with us…. He’s a perfect fit for us in every way.”
Jealous’ election was not without the heated debate that has long been typical of the 64-member board, packed with civil rights warriors from communities and trenches across America. Board members said discussions that started Friday evening continued until the wee hours of Saturday morning.
“There was a great discussion, a great debate on the issues that are critically important to the NAACP,” says labor leader Bill Lucy. “And I think those are the kinds of discussions that engender strong feelings. But the fact that people debated it out into the wee hours of the morning was a good healthy discussion. The fact is that in the end, there was an agreement on his candidacy and that was a good thing.”
Actually, sources said the debate was not all about the candidate. Much of it was about the process. Jealous had been selected unanimously by the organization’s three-member executive committee after it had reviewed two other candidates. The three finalists had been presented to the executive committee by a search committee for the selection of one candidate to present to the board for an interview, which sources say has been the normal process for selecting NAACP presidents.
Acrimony had started at previous meetings when some board members pushed to change the procedure, arguing that the board should be allowed to interview all three finalists. Tension continued in last weekend’s board meeting as some members said they had been disenfranchised by not having heard the other two candidates, who were Rev. Frederick Haynes, a 47-year-old pastor from Dallas, and Alvin Brown, a former Clinton White House advisor.
The final vote for Jealous was 34-21, according to the Baltimore Afro-American.
Responding to a question about how he will deal with board factionalism that has frustrated other NAACP CEOs, Jealous synopsized his leadership style.
“I’m a team player. I believe that in order to lead in the game, you’ve got to be completely in the game, that in order to have people to follow you, they need to know that you’re willing to follow them,” he said. “This isn’t a new industry to me if you will. This is the family, the movement that I was raised in. So, I expect to have nothing but success.”
In random interviews with board members, they spoke glowingly of Jealous. Only one declined to speak on the record.
“A lot of folks made a big to do about age,” said Lucy. “I think it’s a good thing. The energy, the dedication and commitment are those standards that this organization must stand by. From the trade union side, Ben’s really strong belief in workers’ rights, people to be treated fairly on the job, to receive adequate income and pay and to have a voice on the job, that’s what we’re all about.”
Hazel Dukes, a former national president of the organization, said she met Jealous for the first time last week.
“I’ve checked with people that he went to school with … I started listening,” she said when she heard he was a candidate. “And when he laid out the vision for us and to be his age and that he wants to come back and give back to the community with such passion and devotion, I’m just excited. As a mother, I’m just a proud African-American mom today that a young man who has accomplished so much has come back to work for the oldest civil rights organization with a passion, with love and support.”
Maxine Smith, executive secretary of the Memphis NAACP for more than 40 years, currently national education chair, called Jealous a “breath of fresh air.”
She said, “He has obvious ability and inner feeling like those older civil rights leaders and those older NAACPers like us. It’s like he’s been on the warfield a long time.”
The Rev. Michael Nelson of Detroit says he believes Jealous’ age will cause the organization to attract youthful civil rights advocates.
“We do think that with the youthful nature of the new CEO that he will bring the association along in that way and that he will also speak to the issues of youth and young adults,” Nelson says. “We want to be sure that we will continue to build a base for the association. And that we’re taking in consideration the concerns of young people. That’s very important to us.”
The Rev. Theresa Dear of Bartlett, Ill., agrees: “He represents taking the NAACP to the next level. He is extraordinarily brilliant. And he represents great promise and potential, not just for the organization, but for young people.”
Jealous holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University and a master’s in comparative social research from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.
By indications this week, Jealous will also be welcomed back into the civil rights community of Washington, D.C.
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said Jealous’ selection was perfectly timed.
“Change is in the air. We’re on the verge of very important change,” Henderson said. He was referring to the election of either Sen. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or John McCain. “And I think Ben Jealous’ appointment at the NAACP helps to further cement the transition of the important issues that are taking place in the country today … It heralds a new level of leadership for the organization and a new level of cooperation between the NAACP and the established non-governmental organization and civil rights movement.”
Hazel Trice Edney is editor-in-chief for NNPA, the Black Press of America, www.BlackPressUSA.com.