Justice's Son

The Interconnected World of NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2013
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The Penalty

On the morning of March 18, 2009, Jealous arrived at work and received a message that Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, had called. New Mexico was two hours behind, so Jealous knew the call was urgent. He asked his secretary when New Mexico’s death-penalty abolition bill had to be signed.

“By the end of the day today,” the secretary told him.

Jealous speaks out against capital punishment in Annapolis, Maryland in January. The state repealed the death penalty in March / © Patrick Semansky / AP / CorbisEnding capital punishment was one of Jealous’s most personal battles. The racial and economic patterns were clear. So were the system’s imperfections. It pained Jealous that every other Western country had abolished executions while the US, the beacon of human rights, was still on a list with Iran and North Korea. Western leaders, when Jealous discussed it with them, all said the same thing: “It’s because of your legacy of slavery. It’s because of your legacy of racism. That’s the difference between you and us.” The NAACP had been formed partly to combat the death penalty’s extrajudicial sibling, lynching. In 1908, riots erupted in Springfield, Illinois, when a white mob, enraged that two black prisoners whom they’d hoped to hang were transferred from the city jail to safety, rampaged through black neighborhoods. The violence in Abraham Lincoln’s town inspired the merger, in the Northeast, of Du Bois’s Niagara Movement — black, intellectual, committed to equality, largely ignored — with a group of white, justice-minded, influential New Yorkers (including brothers Joel Spingarn 1897CC and Arthur Spingarn 1895CC) to form, on February 12, 1909, the centennial of Lincoln’s birth, the NAACP.

A hundred years later, fourteen states had abolished the death penalty. Jealous’s magic number was twenty-six: if more than half the states outlawed capital punishment, the “unusual” part of “cruel and unusual punishment,” as forbidden by the Eighth Amendment, would become actionable.

Jealous called Richardson. Richardson, a Democrat, had always campaigned as a death-penalty proponent. But now, as a governor, he’d really looked at the issue, and was disturbed by it. Richardson wanted to hear Jealous’s best argument for repeal.

“Governor,” said Jealous. “You know the death penalty is used exclusively on poor people.”


“You know it’s used disproportionately against blacks and Latinos.”


“Well, Governor, this is what I want you to do: imagine the person you most worry about in trying to explain why you abolished the death penalty. I want you to imagine telling that person this: ‘Every time a prosecutor seeks the death penalty, it pulls hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions, out of our state treasury. Dollars that therefore cannot be used for anything else. And in our state, like any state, there are places where 30, 40, 50, sometimes 60 percent of the homicides go unsolved every year. I’ve thought long and hard about it, and decided that we as a state would be safer if we spent that money on homicide units rather than killing the killers we’ve already caught and put in cages. So I’ve abolished the death penalty, and I’ve asked the counties to send their savings to the homicide units and get the uncaught killers off the street.’”

This was a snapshot of Jealous’s MO: first, by speaking moral convictions in the idiom of state budgets and public safety, he could reach a wide swath of Americans and forge coalitions, some of them exotic (in 2011 he joined Newt Gingrich in calling for a reduction in the number of prisoners in the US, with the savings going toward education). Second, he would shift the organization’s legal battles, traditionally waged at the federal level, to the states. Third, he would press his case personally at all levels.

Richardson thanked Jealous and hung up. Hours later, the governor, in what he called “the most difficult decision in my political life,” signed the bill, and New Mexico became the fifteenth state to abolish the death penalty.

“We need for this generation to finally push this country beyond its racial fixation, to call this country out and say, ‘Enough.’”

The Profile

The DC Sniper?

Nearly every hand in the Chesapeake Room goes up. Many of the students were small children at the time of the 2002 killing spree.

“People were being shot daily at rush hour,” Jealous tells his audience, “and there was no suspect description until the police put up a profile. The profile started with certainties and ended with probabilities. Probably antisocial. Probably traveling alone or in a small group. Probably military-trained. Probably male. Probably white. That’s the racial profile of a lone gunman assassin in our country. We say Columbine, we say Newtown, we tend to think of lone white gunmen, and so did the police.

“The police were starting with race and working toward behavior, and people were dying. When John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were caught, the police came out and admitted this just once: they had stopped them ten times before they zeroed in on them as suspects.”

A faint, courtroom-like murmur in the Chesapeake Room.

“But that’s the way race messes up our criminal-justice process. My grandfather was a probation officer in Baltimore for thirty years. He would tell you that law enforcement is like anything else: if you focus on one thing, you aren’t focusing on the other. If you focus on race, you’re not focused on the military jacket of the black guy you’re waving through. You’re not getting the dog that’s trained to sniff for gunpowder to sniff his car. You’re just saying, ‘Go through, I’m looking for the next white guy.’”

Jealous follows this with the story of Jim Parker, a black man who, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901, disarmed the assassin of President William McKinley. The Secret Service, Jealous says, was on alert for Eastern European anarchists — the profile was of a swarthy male — and had been focusing on Parker, while the shooter, a white man with a gun-concealing bandage over his arm, got past security unchecked. All of which sets up Jealous’s jeremiad on the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program, a topic he will expand upon in more fiery fashion next weekend in a Brooklyn church. Tonight, he notes that this form of profiling “loads up the system with people who, when you’re looking for a gun, have a joint in their pocket, and they get upset, and you have to book them for disorderly conduct. That drives up the cost of law enforcement, which competes directly with our budget for public higher education.”

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