COVER STORY

Justice's Son

The Interconnected World of NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2013
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The Meeting

When Jealous arrived in 2008, the NAACP was in trouble. Ethics scandals involving presidents Benjamin Chavis (ousted in 1994 for misuse of funds) and Kweisi Mfume (resigned in 2005 amid accusations of sexual favoritism) had battered the image of an organization already considered, by some of its own members, to be averse to change and still living in the glory days of Thurgood Marshall and Brown. Membership had dropped. Revenues had fallen. The operation had been in the red six years running. The staff had shrunk from 140 to 40. In May 2008, Jealous, backed by then board chairman Julian Bond to succeed out-of-favor telecom executive Bruce Gordon, was elected by a 34–21 margin. Some old-timers weren’t sure about the California youngster. Never led a business or a church. But under Jealous, an experienced nonprofit fundraiser, the NAACP has been profitable every year. The staff has grown to 170, with field directors in every region — a key success in the midst of what Jealous calls “the most aggressive attempt to roll back voting rights in over a century.”

The final day of the NAACP’s annual meeting on February 16 at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square is a southern-tinged affair, a huge family reunion. Multitudinous are the carved wooden canes and Movement-era faces. Overcoats. Hats. Red dresses. There’s New York State Conference president Hazel Dukes. There’s board chairman Roslyn Brock. There’s chairman emeritus Julian Bond, arrested days earlier at the White House during a protest against the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Cheers and songs punctuate testimony from regional leaders of new members signed up, of youth chapters established, of a police-brutality settlement in Denver, of the South Carolina boycott (Confederate flag, state house), of the pardon of the Wilmington ten. Fired up, ready to go!

President Jealous steps to the lectern.

“We have transformed this nation,” he says. “You ain’t burned out, you might be a little burned up.” Laughter. “But you’re burned up because you’ve been in the fire” — that’s right! — “and you’ve taken this country through the fire, and we’re coming out on the other side.” Loud applause. “Thank you, Chairman Brock, thank you to the board of directors, members of the special contribution fund, board of trustees. May we have a hand for the national staff of the NAACP?” Jealous beckons the staff to rise. “The most important number of the NAACP is about 25,000 — the number of active leaders of our 1,200 units across the country. Can we have a hand for them? Because they are the heroes. Thank you, heroes and sheroes — and honestly, it’s more sheroes than heroes.” Wry chuckles from some knowing female veterans. “Oh, I know who I work for,” Jealous says. “And if I forget, my ninety-six-year-old grandma, who’s a third-generation member of the NAACP, reminds me. Y’all should know this story: about five years ago, in May, I called my grandmother. It was the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and I’d just been appointed, and I told her. And you know, you’d expect your grandmother to come to the phone excited and proud.” A pause. “My grandmother was a feminist before we called them feminists.” Scattered laughs. “Delta since 1936.” Cheers for Delta Sigma Theta. “Her best friend was AKA, so don’t start.” Laughter and groans. “But she got real quiet. And I said, ‘Grandma?’ And she said, ‘Well, son. I’ve belonged to this organization for a very long time. And if it had to be a man? Again? I’m very proud that it’s you, son.’” Big laughs, rich with release. “So I know who I work for. Brothers and sisters, I am proud to report that the state of the NAACP is strong.”

Jealous talks more numbers: the NAACP registered 444,676 voters for the 2012 election, up from 124,000 in 2008; turned out 1.2 million voters; and killed voter-suppression laws in fifteen states. Connecticut abolished the death penalty (that makes seventeen, with Maryland next), and same-sex marriage passed in Maine, Maryland, and Washington State.

“And in less than two weeks,” Jealous says, “the very heart of voter protection in the country goes on trial in the US Supreme Court. And we need everyone to get there. We need folks to get in cars and get to the Supreme Court. Because if this goes the wrong way” — Jealous exhales — “we go back.”

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