Credited with reenergizing and modernizing the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, NAACP president Benjamin Jealous announced Sunday he will step down from his position at the end of the year.
In a statement, Jealous said he wanted to spend more time with his family and will go into a new career in teaching. The resignation will be effective Dec. 31.
Jealous, 40, took the helm of the 104-year-old organization in 2008, at a time when members openly lamented their inability to attract a younger generation to the group. He helped convince the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to embrace new issues, like the approval of same-sex marriage. Local chapters of the NAACP, especially in Maryland, said they felt less disconnected from the national office when Jealous took over.
"As others questioned its vitality, we have been able to regrow the mightiest of all trees in the ecology of social justice," Jealous told the Washington Post. "I'm really going to miss the street fights we've been in."
Jealous told USA Today he also plans to organize a fundraising committee to support candidates who will advocate for civil rights.
News of Jealous's resignation surprised local NAACP members, though some said his job took him on the road frequently and understood his wish to spend more time with his two young children.
When he was tapped for the job five years ago, the vote was split — some members wondered whether Jealous, then 35, was too inexperienced. Only a year before that, the NAACP let go about half its staff to dig itself out of debt. Membership has declined, and its image has suffered. Clashes with the NAACP board led the former president, Bruce S. Gordon, to leave abruptly in March 2007.
Now, many members agree the Baltimore-based organization needed rejuvenating.
Under Jealous, NAACP helped to repeal the death penalty in New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut and Maryland; registered hundreds of thousands of voters for the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections; and organized against New York City's use of stop-and-frisk policing.
"He has been a man on a mission since the day he took over," said Elbridge James, the political action chair of NAACP Maryland. "He positioned the NAACP where it needed to be for the 21st century."
James said Jealous was among the most effective leaders of the organization in its history, and speculated that it might take some time to find a leader who could fill Jealous' shoes.
Rev. Amos Brown, a member of the NAACP board of directors from San Francisco, said he hopes to increase the organization's focus on education and "economic empowerment," among other priorities.
After Jealous, "the NAACP will survive and will still be the most revered civil rights organization in the world," Brown said. "We will continue to play as a team. That's what makes an organization strong and vibrant."
Jealous became known for building strong relationships with other human and civil rights groups. Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement that Jealous turned the NAACP from an organization focused on racial issues to one that "transformed the national conversation around civil rights for all Americans."
"On my first day on the job as HRC President back in 2012, my very first meeting was with Ben Jealous," Griffin said. "He believes in his heart that none of us is equal until all of us are equal, and that commitment to justice for all made him an ideal national leader at this decisive moment."
Jealous frequently had a hand in local issues and helped advocate for Maryland's repeal of the death penalty and approval of gay marriage last year.
"Ben shares our belief in the dignity of every individual," Gov. Martin O'Malley said in a statement. "Ben has helped us repeal the death penalty, pass the Dream Act, ensure marriage equality, and expand voting in our State – among so many other great achievements."
Carrie Evans, president of Equality Maryland and a NAACP member, said Jealous would take to black radio programs in Baltimore and Prince George's County to push for such issues.
"What he accomplished in five years it takes some of us 10 to 15 years to do," she said.
Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland NAACP, called Jealous "instrumental" in ushering those reforms through the state legislature this year.
"He set a strong foundation for our future leaders to follow," Stansbury said. The next leader will be "someone to take us to the next level," he said.
Roslyn M. Brock, Chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors, said in a statement that the civil rights group would continue to advocate for the rights of women and immigrants, and other issues members have more recently embraced.
"We thank President Jealous for his time leading the Association," Brock said. "Our board, staff and volunteer leaders throughout the country deeply appreciate his sacrifice, and will continue to implement our game-changing goals for the next half century that include the restoration of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, implementing Trayvon's Law, bolstering civic engagement efforts and ensuring our community is enrolled in the Affordable Care Act exchanges."
As the son of a black mother and a white father, Jealous has said he was interested in race and civil rights issues from a young age. He later studied at Columbia University, where he was suspended for helping to lead a protest against the university's plans to turn the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated, into a biomedical research center. He later became a Rhodes Scholar and earned a graduate degree from the University of Oxford. Jealous also was founding director of Amnesty International's Human Rights Program and was a reporter for the Jackson Advocate in Mississipi, which he has described as "frequently firebombed."
He now lives with his wife, civil rights attorney Lia Epperson Jealous, and children in Silver Spring.
Jealous grew up in Pacific Grove, Calif., but his family was from Baltimore and he spent summers with his grandmother in Baltimore's Ashburton neighborhood. His mother, Ann Todd Jealous, is a psychotherapist from Baltimore who helped desegregate Western High School. His father, Fred Jealous, was apart of sit-in demonstrations in Baltimore to desegregate lunch counters.
"It was always a place where I looked forward to coming because it was easier to be black here in Ashburton than the little town where I grew up," Jealous told the Sun in 2008.
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