Justice's Son

The Interconnected World of NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2013
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The Interconnected World of NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous / Photograph by Jörg Meyer

The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone but for all true Americans.
— W. E. B. Du Bois, 1906

On the morning that a statue of Rosa Parks is unveiled in the US Capitol, hundreds of people gather across First Street outside the Supreme Court Building, its scaffolded marble pillars covered by a veil of netting. The court is in session. It is February 27, 2013, a spring-touched day of sunshine and white bluffs sailing in a thin blue sky. The crowd, at the bottom of the wide, white steps, repeats the words of a black woman at a microphone: “Section 5 Must Stay Alive!”

They’ve come from Atlanta, the Carolinas, Baltimore, Detroit, Indiana, New York, Texas, Mississippi, and around the corner. They’re of all ages, colors, and tax brackets. They hold signs that say PROTECT VOTING RIGHTS and KEEP SECTION 5 ALIVE! and that depict murdered 1960s voting-rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner. They are college students, civil-rights veterans, UAW guys in ski caps, people in wheelchairs, red-T-shirted members of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, button-wearers from the League of Women Voters and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and, in high proportion, holding black-on-gold placards of the 104-year-old organization’s scales-of-justice logo, members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Inside the court, Benjamin Jealous ’94CC, dressed in a gray suit and blue tie, sits among the spectators observing the oral arguments for Shelby County v. Holder. Shelby County, in Alabama, is challenging the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed voter-suppression tactics that were being used against African-Americans. At issue is a provision, Section 5, which requires jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression to prove to the Justice Department or a panel of federal judges that any changes to their voting rules are nondiscriminatory. The petitioner claims that the law, which Congress reauthorized in 2006 (the Senate voted 98–0 in favor), is outdated, unfair, and unnecessary.

As Jealous listens, Justice Antonin Scalia utters something so astonishing that people in the courtroom actually gasp. Jealous must decide how to convey what he just heard; for when the session is over, he will exit through the Great Hall, emerge into the sun, walk down the steps, and address the demonstrators.

Outside, the mood is festive but tense. Speakers affirm the dire need to uphold Section 5. A Mexican-American woman tells of the Texas voter-ID law that went into effect last year, requiring voters to show state-issued photo identification (driver’s licenses and gun licenses were permitted; student ID was not). More than 600,000 registered voters in Texas lacked the necessary ID. When Texas, which is subject to Section 5, submitted the legislation for review, a federal court struck it down, saying the costs of obtaining ID would impose “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor.” Now that protection hangs by the thinnest thread.

A noise, from up the street — a melody, voices — the clapping of hands — and here they come, after a thousand miles, off the buses, two hundred strong, marching up First Street toward Constitution Avenue, old and young, in yellow shirts that say Freedom Riders for Voting Rights, singing Got my hand on the freedom plow, wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now, keep your eyes on the prize, hold on. Someone at the podium cries, “Alabama in the house!”

On this day, it’s hard not to think of Rosa Parks, or Jimmie Lee Jackson, or the March on Washington fifty years ago. But it’s 2013, and behind the cloak of netting, the doors to the Supreme Court have opened, and the spectators, Jealous among them, descend the steps.

The Speaker

Two weeks before Shelby County v. Holder, and the night before President Obama’s State of the Union address, Ben Jealous, forty, walks through the football-themed, tiger-mascot-plastered student union of Towson University in Baltimore County, Maryland. In his goatee and with a suit jacket stretched over his broad frame, Jealous could be a bighearted ex-lineman returning for an awards supper. In fact, he’s been invited by the school’s Center for Student Diversity to give a talk in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

Inside the Chesapeake Room, three hundred people sit at round tables and in rows of chairs. The school is about 13 percent black and 70 percent white, and so, too, is the audience. Jealous, on being introduced, walks to the lectern to the sort of respectful applause accorded national figures by diffident college kids.

“Growing up in the family in which Dr. King grew up,” Jealous says in his forceful baritone, “you would have been taught that the most important use of your education is to make our country better, to advance the cause of justice, to advance the cause of liberty, to make us one nation; to make our Pledge of Allegiance — one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all — not our national aspiration, but our natural situation.

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