Justice's Son

The Interconnected World of NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2013
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He concludes with an appeal: “We need for this generation to finally push this country beyond its racial fixation, to call this country out and say, ‘Enough. We’re tired of it. It doesn’t work. It never really has.’” Jealous returns to his theme. “Yours must be the generation that insists that our nation make the Pledge of Allegiance our national situation rather than our national aspiration, before you have to stand there brokenhearted as I did at class day at my daughter’s public elementary school two days ago, and listen as your child puts her hand over her heart and says that pledge with conviction, because that’s where she believes that she lives: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. And life hasn’t taught her yet just how far we have to go. Thank you, and God bless.”

The applause crackles, some people stand, more people stand, everyone stands.

The Organizer

Mister Speaker, the President of the United States.

Ben Jealous stands and applauds as President Obama enters the House chamber to give his much-awaited State of the Union speech. Twice in the last month, Jealous conferred with the president in small, closed-door meetings, where, as Jealous told a reporter before the speech, “I made it very clear to the president that black Americans need to hear that he hears us when we say the disparity, the gap in employment rates, must be closed. That’s what we’re looking to hear — that he has a plan for lifting all boats.”

Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to nine dollars an hour.

Jealous doesn’t doubt that his fellow Columbian “gets it.” It’s an organizer thing. Obama in Chicago, Jealous in New York. At Columbia, Jack Greenberg ’45CC, ’48LAW — arguer of Brown v. Board of Education, former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), and dean of Columbia College — recommended Jealous for an LDF internship. Jealous worked out of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem on issues of health care and homelessness.

Tonight, let’s also recognize that there are communities in this country where no matter how hard you work, it’s virtually impossible to get ahead. Factory towns decimated from years of plants packing up. Inescapable pockets of poverty, urban and rural, where young adults are still fighting for their first job.

Jealous also formed student groups that ran youth programs and restored apartments in buildings that the University deemed too dangerous for student volunteers. On campus, he fought to save full-need financial aid and need-blind admissions, and when the University announced plans to raze the Audubon Ballroom, site of Malcolm X’s assassination, and replace it with a biomedical research center, Jealous organized a one-day protest that led to his one-semester suspension.

And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.

Jealous’s activist strain arose early. Raised to believe, as Du Bois wrote, that “with the right to vote goes everything,” he organized, at fourteen, a voter-registration drive in Monterey County.

We should follow the example of a North Miami woman named Desiline Victor. When she arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours.

Jealous stands with the rest of the chamber and applauds the 102-year-old black woman who waited hours to vote, and whose concern, says the president, was “not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say.”

We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote. When any Americans — no matter where they live or what their party — are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals.

Jealous speaks of moments — talking with a black farmer who was defrauded of land by the USDA, sitting with Troy Davis, “an innocent man,” on death row (Davis was executed in 2011) — “that sear your soul and redouble your commitment.” Doubtless, President Obama has had many such moments, and Jealous hears this in the president’s address — hears the president hearing.

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