COVER STORY

Justice's Son

The Interconnected World of NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2013
  • Comments (0)
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Download
  • Text Size A A A

The Preacher

Father’s Day 2012: Tens of thousands march in New York City during an NAACP-cosponsored protest against stop-and-frisk / © Tony Savino / CorbisIt’s Sunday morning at the 140-year-old Nazarene Congregational United Church of Christ in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Step into the nave, with its high ceiling and rows of brown wooden pews, its tall, sunny stained-glass windows composed of squares of blue, green, red, and yellow. You’re early. An older woman in a hat sees you and beckons you, a stranger, to the front rows, where she and her friends welcome you and talk about the grace of the small gesture, the smile that can make all the difference in someone’s day; and now the blue-gowned choir files to the front, and the young pianist and drummer and choir director perform “I’ve Got Peace Like a River” and “Trouble Don’t Last Always,” and the pastor, the Reverend Conrad Tillard, nods to Jealous on the altar. “Ben is an Episcopalian, but I saw him tapping his feet.” Tillard recalls meeting Jealous as “a militant student on the campus of Columbia University,” a young man of “brilliance and tremendous insight,” brought up in the tradition of social justice. “I want our young people to meet a young man who can graduate from Columbia and go on to become a Rhodes Scholar, because just as he has done, they have the potential to do.” Applause. “You got to meet giants in order to be a giant.” That’s right. “So I’m glad that he’s in Bedford-Stuyvesant today.”

“I’m deeply disturbed that in this greatest of all nations there lies a troubling reality: not all of our children have the same access to democracy or justice.”

Jealous takes the pulpit.

His sermon, he says, is inspired by St. Augustine’s notion that even as we seek the City of God in Heaven, we must build the City of God on earth. “Indeed,” says Jealous, “our own nation’s founding fathers were inspired by that vision.” Amen. “I’m deeply disturbed that in this greatest of all nations — a nation founded on the principles of democracy and justice and universal human dignity — there lies a troubling reality: not all of our children have the same access to democracy or justice.”

But it is only when Jealous leaves Augustine’s New Jerusalem for Bloomberg’s New York that the flame flies up and the hammer drops.

“I was prepared to talk about jobs today, but then Mayor Bloomberg couldn’t help himself,” Jealous begins. “In the State of the City speech a couple of days ago, he felt the need to evangelize what he sees as the value of stop-and-frisk .” Jealous’s voice rises. “The gall, to stand up and preach fear to our city, and our nation, and indeed — because this city stands first among all others in this greatest of all nations — the world. Preach fear of our children, New York’s children, all of our children, whether they are white and wearing a hoodie or black and wearing a tie and going to church.”

Yes. All right.

“Kids in this city are too afraid of the very people who are sworn to respect and protect them. And the mayor needs to understand and finally have the courage to admit that he has been wrong for a decade.” Applause. “That he inherited Giuliani’s radical practice and took it to an unimaginably high level” — Amen — “and has, therefore, distracted law enforcement, endangered every citizen of the city, and driven a wedge of division between the people who have sworn to respect and protect the entire city and the neighborhoods that often need their help the most.” Jealous goes to the stats. “In 2011, there were 700,000 stop-and-frisks. About 90 percent of the people were innocent. About 90 percent were people of color. And 99.9 percent didn’t have a gun. Literally. 700,000 stop-and-frisks resulted in 700 guns off the street. This was in a year. 700,000 people humiliated. 630,000 innocent. 630,000 people of color.” Jealous thunders: “More stop-and-frisks of young black men in New York City than there are young black men in New York City.” Applause. “We’ve been running this test in this country for ten years, and the results are in, and they are not just clear, they are crystal clear. New York City’s ability to reduce crime is between 50 percent and 100 percent less than major cities that don’t have stop-and-frisk.” Jealous falls to a pained whisper. “So why would you want to do it?”

Long silence.

“Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly act like they don’t know why crime is going down faster in other cities. But we do. It’s called common sense.”

When Jealous is finished, Tillard makes some announcements and baptizes two babies. Then everyone stands, holds hands, and joins in the recessional, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The stained-glass lozenges blush with winter light. The church doors open.

The Vote

Alabama in the House!

The first full-bodied statue of an African-American woman is dedicated in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, and throughout the day, people will point out that Rosa Parks, the mother of the civil rights movement, wasn’t some saintly old lady in Montgomery too tired to get up from her seat that day in 1955, but rather a forty-two-year-old NAACP stalwart, secretary of the Montgomery branch for twelve years, shrewder than you thought — while across First Street, behind the draped scaffolding, Shelby County has been heard, and at the foot of the white steps the Freedom Riders for Voting Rights in their yellow shirts wait with the rest of the assembly to hear from the president of the NAACP.

The mood is no longer buoyant. Previous speakers have already revealed Justice Scalia’s stunner. Scalia, trying to explain the Senate’s 2006 vote of 98–0 to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, said, “I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement.”

Jealous keeps his own comments brief.

“Scalia today got it wrong, dead wrong,” he says. “He tried to act like democracy was something trifling. I won’t dignify his comments by repeating them, but join me in saying:

“The right to vote”

The right to vote

“is an American entitlement.”

is an American entitlement.

“The right to vote”

The right to vote

“is an American entitlement.”

is an American entitlement.

Shortly after Jealous speaks, the crowd disbands in the afternoon sun, back to the trains, the cars, the buses. The court’s decision in Shelby County is expected in June. But for Jealous, there are many miles to walk before then.

  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Recommend (58)
Log in with your UNI to post a comment

The best stories wherever you go on the Columbia Magazine App

Maybe next time