Ben Jealous steps through the metal detector in the Hart Senate Office building on Capitol Hill. He removes his black baseball cap and jacket, hunching over as he affixes a gold NAACP pin to his lapel before entering a press conference in support of Attorney General nominee Eric Holder. It's January, and the 35-year-old Jealous has been president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for a mere four months.
As he stands behind the podium, rubbing shoulders with senators and other civil-rights leaders, his gaze drifts to the space between his shoes. After a few moments, he realizes he's on camera, and his chin jerks up as he rocks back on his heels a bit. When he takes the mic, he puts aside his prepared remarks and in a soft voice reminds the assembled crowd of reporters about the many civil-rights violations under the Bush administration. "With the Bill of Rights in tatters, with the Department of Justice in tatters, we need a man who can hold it together, and Holder is that man," Jealous says confidently. He halts and squints for a moment. "We need a person who can hold it together. Holder is that person."
The NAACP had only recently decided that Jealous was the man -- er, person -- who could hold it together. On the eve of its centennial year, the organization risks becoming a victim of its own success. The leader of the Western world is a black man named Barack Obama, and even Bill Cosby sounds optimistic about the future of black America. The organization that publicized lynching and awakened the conscience of the nation, litigated against segregation all over the country, and helped organize the 1964 March on Washington now finds itself suffering from dwindling membership and an inability to connect to youth. Where once the visible realities of segregation and discrimination either forced or inspired the best and brightest African Americans to join the NAACP, the civil-rights victories of the last century have given them other choices and opportunities.
"Even the so-called 'new black politics,' people who are Ivy League educated and all this, who want to transcend race, people like [D.C. Mayor Adrian] Fenty and [Philadelphia Mayor] Michael Nutter, have aligned themselves with forces that are not really connected to the old civil-rights guard," says Peniel Joseph, a professor of African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University. "They're building on the legacy of civil rights and black power, but they portray themselves as pragmatists rather than ideologically inclined."
While Jealous possesses much of the "new black politics" pedigree -- an Ivy League degree, a Rhodes scholarship, an ease with business interests, and a professional demeanor that allows him to speak about issues of race to broad audiences -- he chose to be an activist rather than a politician. "I think like everybody in my generation, we were encouraged to see it as all the great battles had been won," Jealous says. "But at the same time we were growing up in a period of increasing violence in the black community, in the Latino community. So the older we got, the more reality conflicted with the stories we were being told." Obama may be president, but black men are also incarcerated in record numbers, public schools remain segregated, the wealth of the middle class is tumbling, and AIDS is the No. 1 killer of black women ages 24 to 35.
Jealous is part community organizer, part savvy financial operator, and part tech geek. In less than a year as president, he has made converts out of his critics both within the NAACP and outside it, and he has modernized the organization by drawing young, gifted and black talent. In advance of the presidential election, Jealous developed a new online system to help the NAACP register thousands of voters. And he has used his fundraising connections to resolve the fiscal crisis left by his predecessor. "He knows just about everyone," says Tammy Tanner, an administrative assistant at the Rosenberg Foundation, the philanthropic organization Jealous ran before leaving for the NAACP. "He says, let's have wine and sit down and talk, and people are writing $10,000 checks for him." When several donors pulled out of an NAACP fundraiser in San Francisco over the chapter president's opposition to the Proposition 8 gay-marriage ban, Jealous jumped on a plane to California and raised $19,000 to fill the gap.
But before he could do any of this, Jealous had to convince the NAACP's board that he could keep the organization relevant in an era when many people are asking, does America still need a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People when colored people have advanced further than any of us ever dreamed?
Last May, the board of the NAACP huddled into a Marriott Hotel in Baltimore to select its new president. The 64 members were sharply divided between two candidates: Benjamin Todd Jealous and the Rev. Frederick Douglass Haynes III. The board's choice was stark. Haynes fit the mold of previous NAACP leaders, a pastor turned civil-rights crusader. An accomplished orator who turned a small Dallas congregation into an 8,000-member megachurch, he combined a charismatic presence with a business savvy the financially troubled NAACP desperately needed. Jealous, on the other hand, came from a tradition of mixing journalism with advocacy. He developed a strong reputation as a manager during stints as head of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), an association of black newspapers, and as president of the Rosenberg Foundation.
In recent years, the NAACP brand had been badly tarnished. After the Rev. Ben Hooks, a movement veteran, resigned as president in the early 1990s, the organization's next two leaders were tainted by sex scandals and fiscal mismanagement. In 2005, the NAACP elected Bruce Gordon, a former Verizon executive, who was considered a more business-friendly face for a more conservative time. But he too proved a poor financial manager, leaving the NAACP almost $4 million in debt. Gordon, who spoke openly about America being in a "post-civil-rights era," also clashed ideologically with longtime Chairman Julian Bond and other board members. He resigned after less than two years.
This time, the board needed to pick a president who could handle vast fundraising responsibilities, manage its 300,000 members, restore fiscal prudence, and attract new blood. And the new president would have to do these things without, you know, embarrassing the NAACP. Supporters of Haynes argued that he was the safer bet. "Anyone who can build a church of four, five, six thousand members clearly shows he can bring people together and run a multimillion-dollar organization," said Pennsylvania Conference President Jerry Monedesire, who originally supported Haynes. But Bond threw his support behind Jealous, whose experience as a community organizer brought him closer to Bond's vision for the NAACP as a social-justice organization.
The board's marathon eight-hour debate session lasted until 2 A.M., when Jealous was finally selected by a vote of 34-21. Grumpy board members shuffled out of the meeting to air their objections to the press -- a marked contrast from just two years prior, when the newly elected Gordon strolled triumphantly into a room full of reporters. Many of the board members' complaints -- that Jealous was inexperienced, dismissive of established leaders like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, or simply not an active enough member of the NAACP -- were published by NNPA columnist George Curry who, despite being Jealous' longtime friend and colleague, disagreed with the board's decision. In a column he wrote about the increasing number of biracial blacks in leadership positions, Curry obliquely referenced Jealous' light skin tone, recalling a time when access to social gatherings of the black elite was often dependent on whether or not one was "light, bright, and damn near white."
Bond says that the issue also came up in private. During a closed-door meeting of the presidential search committee, one member questioned whether the light-skinned Jealous was a good choice for the voice of the NAACP. Bond was incensed. ("It would be beneath us to consider it," he says.) The next meeting, he brought in a copy of Time magazine from 1938 featuring famed NAACP leader Walter White, who was light enough to pass as white. The subject was never brought up again.
It was a typical 1960s love story: Jealous' parents met while battling Jim Crow laws. Fred Jealous was used to being the only white guy thrown in jail for integrating lunch counters, and Ann Todd was active with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. After Fred was disowned by his family for marrying a black woman, he and Ann left their families on the East Coast to settle in Monterey County, California, which Ben Jealous describes as a community of disaffected activists of all stripes. Jealous was born in 1973, and by age 14 he was hitting the streets to register voters in anticipation of Jesse Jackson's presidential run. "It was a compelling ask," Jealous recalls. "If you were 40 years old and you had a 14-year-old on your doorstep asking you to vote, how could you say no?"
When Jealous enrolled at Columbia University in 1990, he began working as an organizer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. On campus, his activist streak got him in trouble. Protesting a plan to turn the site of Malcolm X's assassination into a research facility, Jealous was suspended for "aiding and abetting the obstruction of an entrance to a university facility for more than a very short period of time," he says, citing the charge from memory. So he made a pilgrimage to the South to join a struggle similar to the one that drew his parents together. Mississippi's three black colleges were slated to be closed, and Jealous organized with the local NAACP chapter to keep them open and fully funded.
While in Mississippi, he began working as a reporter for a weekly black newspaper called The Jackson Advocate, where his journalism training consisted of "reading The Guardian and getting [my] ass kicked by [publisher Charles Tisdale's] red pen." Tisdale viewed journalism as not just a way to provide information but also as a commitment to the black community, and working with him was a formative experience for Jealous. Tisdale's widow, Alice Thomas-Tisdale, who is now publisher of the Advocate, explains, "The black press believes that as long as one [person] is held back, we all are. So it's more of an institution than just a source of information."
After cutting his teeth at the Advocate and then becoming its managing editor, Jealous returned to Columbia in 1997. With most of his friends gone and the struggle for apartheid finally over, Jealous was able to bring his grades up and win a Rhodes Scholarship. When he returned from Oxford in 1999, his experience at the Advocate led to a job as head of the NNPA. As president, Jealous struck a deal with Microsoft to finance the relocation of the organization's office to Howard University in Washington, D.C. He also set up a Web site that syndicates articles from all of its member papers. The NNPA now functions not only as an association of black newspapers but also as an online wire service and a training ground for journalism students.
Jealous' experiences are anchored in the struggle for civil rights, but he is perhaps the first NAACP president to have a background in human rights as well. In 2002, he left the NNPA to become the director of Amnesty International's American human-rights program, where he lobbied against racial profiling, particularly of Arab Americans and Muslims after September 11. When discussing civil-rights issues, Jealous frequently refers to other ethnic groups affected by discrimination or poverty, although his emphasis is on the community that raised him, that made him who he is. While previous generations of civil-rights leaders no doubt believed that the struggle for black civil rights was part of a struggle for the rights of all people, Jealous is keenly affected by that view, and it deeply informs his leadership of the NAACP. "For a hundred years [the NAACP has] consistently transformed this country for the better," Jealous says. "Not just for black people or some people but for all people."
Only a few years out of college, Jealous quickly climbed the ranks of the nonprofit world. In 2005, he was named president of the Los Angeles–based Rosenberg Foundation, which grants money to groups working in low-income communities. Jealous whipped the foundation into fiscal and managerial shape and directed its money toward an emerging method of dealing with mass incarceration: re-entry programs that help former inmates readjust to society and find work. Jealous plans to prioritize these issues as president of the NAACP. "A hundred years from now we're going to be judged by our grandchildren," he says. "They're going to look back, and they're going to say, this country had the most incarcerated on Earth. Young black people were the most incarcerated in modern history. What did you do about it?"
But Jealous got tired of simply funding activism. He wanted to return to the front lines. When friends in the civil-rights community started floating his name to the NAACP search committee, Jealous was interested. But he realized that he would have to move across the country to Baltimore in order to take the job.
Ultimately, it was the birth of his daughter that would make the decision for him. Jealous had met fellow activist and lawyer Lia Beth Epperson at a Hungarian pastry shop during his first stint at Columbia University, and although they had fallen in love, work had kept them apart. But by the summer of 2002, they had reunited and married. As Jealous contemplated the move from Rosenberg, their newborn child was his primary consideration. He explains, "Being a young black parent in this country leaves you with an urgent desire to improve the world quickly." He decided the move was worth it.
For decades, the NAACP was the first responder against injustices like segregation, discrimination, and brutality against blacks because the United States government refused to act on their behalf. But as progress was made and barriers fell, critics began to argue that the NAACP was merely a reactionary organization, stuck in the past and unsuited to the new era.
In August 2007, when influential black blogger Gina McCauley first heard about a woman and her son who were gang-raped in the Dunbar Village housing project in Florida, she called the NAACP. She says the organization told her that responding to the crime "wasn't in their mission." But while the national office declined to take a position either way, the local NAACP chapter in Boca Raton eventually did speak out -- on behalf of the suspected perpetrators, alleging that they had been treated unfairly by the courts. For McCauley and others, the experience proved that the NAACP was out of touch: it responded to racism but not to broader social issues that affect the community, such as black-on-black crime.
Even when it has been proactive, the NAACP has had trouble connecting with young black Americans. When the organization held a ritual "burial of the N-word" two years ago, it seemed comically tone-deaf to the word's frequent use among young blacks, Latinos, and even some whites. To young people, "the NAACP is a relic of another age," says author and journalist Juan Williams. "When I was covering the NAACP … I wrote they were a bunch of gray-haired revolutionaries. And that was in the '80s."
The NAACP has faced generational conflicts since the 1960s, when young activists broke off and formed or joined organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but it has always persevered, possibly due to the strength of its history and brand. Today, the NAACP sometimes finds itself outmaneuvered by grass-roots groups like James Rucker's Color of Change, an online activist network whose quick rise to prominence suggests there is a space for advocacy the NAACP simply isn't taking advantage of. "The NAACP has had difficulty demonstrating its relevance to people who weren't already true believers," Rucker says.
Still, he emphasizes, even the most effective new civil-rights groups don't have the infrastructure to compete with the NAACP, with its hundreds of chapters and vast lobbying experience. "We're not trying to beat the NAACP," Rucker says. "My goal is to amplify each other's efforts. Given the issues that we face, we need everything that we got to make change happen."
But the fact is many civil-rights-minded youth are coming to activism through groups like Rucker's, not the NAACP. The struggle that originally brought young people to the NAACP is over. There are no segregated lunch counters, no poll taxes, no lynching epidemic. After years of fighting for equal rights through organizing, litigation, and lobbying, the barriers to the most powerful positions in the land have been breached.
Jealous sees these successes -- and the challenges they bring -- as an opportunity rather than a death knell. "Our founders said we were going to eradicate lynch mobs; 30 years later we did it. In 1918, we said we were going to desegregate the military; 30 years later we did it. In 1932, we said we were going to outlaw Jim Crow; 22 years later we did it. In 1954, we said we were going to desegregate every institution in this country, from the local school to the global corporation. … It took 40 years, but we succeeded. In 1960, we said we were going to level the political playing field; we've done it," Jealous says. "It's okay in our mind to pick not a three-year goal but a 30-year goal, because that's how we've succeeded consistently."
For Jealous, mass incarceration is the civil-rights challenge of this generation. Addressing it, he says, requires more than just changing draconian drug laws; it also requires confronting poverty and a failing public-education system. Young black folks, particularly the urban poor who most need an organization like the NAACP to look out for them, are facing problems of violence, drugs, AIDS, and unequal education.
Most civil-rights activists, and even their critics, agree with Jealous that this is the biggest civil-rights challenge of the modern era -- they just disagree on how to meet it. John McWhorter of the conservative Manhattan Institute says that a dysfunctional black culture, not racism, is the issue, and it can only be addressed internally. "The proper thing for a civil-rights organization to do today is to go into services," McWhorter says.
Jealous, however, argues that the NAACP needs to stick to its roots -- advocating for better public policy. Providing services isn't the NAACP's role, he argues. "Some people would like to see us be an alternative government infrastructure for black people," Jealous says. "I understand where that comes from; the reality is that's what we've been fighting against for 100 years. What we've been fighting for is for the government that we already have to respond to the needs of all people. Our focus is on the needs of black America; that's what we do best; that's where we're known best. But our goal is a fully functioning democracy."
During the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that made him a star, Barack Obama invoked the idea of a nation where the inner-city resident and the rural factory worker are equally American. Fulfilling this promise is why the NAACP was created. There could not be a Barack Obama without the NAACP, and yet the organization faces particular challenges in lobbying this president -- the most popular black political figure in history.
Some people have learned the hard way just how tricky it can be. During the campaign, when media personality Tavis Smiley criticized Obama for not paying enough attention to black problems, the ensuing uproar caused Smiley to cancel upcoming media appearances. Radio host Tom Joyner told his listeners that Smiley "couldn't take the hate."
Jealous must figure out how to hold Obama accountable without drawing "the hate." Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton, is optimistic. The NAACP "could become the authentic supportive and yet challenging voice to the Obama administration," she says.
This is the role Jealous envisions. "It would be disrespectful not to criticize [Obama]," he says. "If we don't let the brother know when he's not living up to people's expectations, he's only going to be there four years."
Whether Jealous can restore the NAACP to its former glory and help the organization hold its own in the crowd of special interests jockeying for the president's attention is an open question. While Obama may be uniquely sympathetic to the NAACP's agenda, his popularity among black folks and ephemeral personal connections to the organization might limit their influence. Jealous needs to do more than remind young people that the NAACP is fighting for them; he needs to convince them that the NAACP has their interests in mind even when the president doesn't.
On the day before Obama's inauguration, Jealous spoke to a small gathering of reporters at an NAACP reception in Washington. When asked what Obama's rise meant for the NAACP, Jealous simply said, "History has proven the fallacy of the Moses archetype for black leadership."
One person, even the president, is no substitute for a movement.