When Ben Jealous was chosen at age 35 to be the NAACP’s youngest president ever, a number of old-timers questioned whether he was up for the job. Five years later, they should be sorry he is leaving so soon.
That was my reaction when he told me in a weekend telephone interview before his Monday announcement that he was stepping down as of Dec. 31, two years before his current contract expires, “to spend more time with my children.”
I was shocked. That’s the sort of reason, I reminded him, that we media workers are accustomed to hearing from public officials who don’t want to talk about something else — like a scandal. Fortunately that’s not Jealous’ situation. Quite the opposite; he led a turnaround that stands as a model for pulling an old organization into new times.
He is too young by about a decade to remember the civil rights movement’s biggest hard-won victories, but Jealous turned that to his advantage. In an organization long criticized by the hip-hop generation as too old and out of touch, Jealous did what political parties are told to do after they have lost too many elections: Update your agenda and broaden your base.
He turned to social media and the organization’s 1,400 local branches and campus chapters. They added more than 400,000 new mobile subscribers, he said, built the association’s email list to 1.3 million names and more than doubled its voter registration to 374,553 new votes in the 2012 election cycle, compared to four years earlier.
He campaigned against the death penalty, against New York’s stop-and-frisk laws and for an overhaul in immigration laws. He supported same-sex marriage before President Barack Obama did, even though it reportedly caused some local officials around the country to step down in protest.
He also helped bring the organization back financially, almost doubling its revenue from $25.6 million in 2008 to $46 million last year, according to a Washington Post report, and improving its financial and transparency ratings.
He also promoted bipartisanship. He worked with Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley to end the death penalty in Maryland and stood with Virginia’s Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to make it easier for ex-felons to regain their voting rights.
He enlisted support from Grover Norquist, among other conservatives, for the NAACP’s report “Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate,” which argued that much of the money spent on incarcerating nonviolent offenders could be better spent on improving education.
“It’s not easy to take over an organization with such a long history and legacy,” Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said approvingly of Jealous, even though they disagree on almost every other issue. “You’re constantly compared to heroes and other legendary giants of the past.”
Indeed, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization has struggled in recent decades to avoid becoming a victim of its own successes. Most of the agenda on which it was founded in 1909 was achieved with the movement’s hard-won victories in the 1960s. Black America’s biggest challenges since then increasingly have been about class and opportunity.
What is to be done about persistent racial gaps in jobs, crime, poverty, education, etc.? The organization’s main mission continues to be, former NAACP chairman Julian Bond — an early backer of Jealous — has insisted, “social justice, not social service.”
Jealous talked the right talk in addressing that mission, but many, including me, wondered whether he could do it. Sure, he was a Rhodes Scholar, a former investigative journalist at Mississippi’s Jackson Advocate and a founding director of Amnesty International’s Human Rights Program. But old and stately organizations like the NAACP turn as sluggishly as aircraft carriers. Jealous fortunately exceeded many expectations as a very capable captain.
But what next? First, he says, he will spend more time with his wife, Lia Epperson, a law professor at American University, and their two children. He has several university teaching offers he’s considering, too.
But I am most intrigued by his plans to start a fundraising organization for “candidates of color,” similar to what Emily’s List does for women candidates.
He wants it to work with people who agree with its key issues, regardless of their party, he said. That doesn’t sound like today’s gridlocked Washington. But, if anything, Jealous knows how to pull old thinkers into new times.
Email Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.