The resignation of NAACP President Benjamin Jealous left the nation's most influential advocacy group for equality in search of a new leader at a particularly sensitive time in U.S. race relations, setting off a debate Monday about his potential successor.
Jealous announced over the weekend that he will step down in December, sparking a flurry of analysis about his legacy and who could sustain his efforts to expand the group's reach, social media savvy and financial growth.
The transition comes as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, headquartered in Baltimore, is working to blunt the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June to invalidate a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Emotions, meanwhile, are still smoldering from last year's shooting death of Trayvon Martin — a case that Jealous repeatedly sought to highlight as an example of injustice against African-Americans.
"The next person has to be, in my opinion, someone who can organize internally and externally around an idea, a thought, a concept that draws people together," said Kweisi Mfume, a former Maryland congressman who led the NAACP for nine years beginning in 1996.
"The next person really has to be a strong communicator," he said, citing that as one of Jealous' strengths.
Jealous will remain president through the end of the year. NAACP Chairwoman Roslyn Brock said on Monday that the board is forming a search committee to find the next president, but the timeline for a replacement is not clear.
Jealous, who said he is leaving to spend more time with his family, was about one year into his latest three-year contract.
Jealous was a controversial choice when the NAACP board, on a split vote, named him in 2008 to fill a job that previously had been held by civil rights heavyweights such as Benjamin L. Hooks. Only 35 at the time, Jealous was the first leader of the organization not to have played a direct role in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
But supporters say that what Jealous lacked in years he made up for in energy. The California native pounced on topical stories, including the Martin case, broadened the NAACP's advocacy mission into health care and early childhood education and vastly expanded the group's reach through social media.
Annual revenue doubled to $46 million between 2007 and 2012, and Jealous said Monday that the number of donors increased from 16,000 to more than 132,000.
"He's made the NAACP relevant again," said Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a Baltimore Democrat whose grandfather, Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., was a leading voice for the civil rights movement as the chief lobbyist for the NAACP during the 1960s.
"This is a very crucial time to find a leader to make sure that they have a vision and that they're able to build those coalitions" that Jealous forged, he said.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake agreed, mentioning such partnerships as the group's work with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups to back same-sex marriage in Maryland and elsewhere.
"The next president must understand, as Ben did, that the movement is stronger when we continue to bring in new partners such as our LGBT friends and immigrants looking for a fair shot in America," she said.
In a statement Monday, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said that the NAACP under Jealous "adapted to meet the challenges and needs of a new generation of minorities."
Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland State Conference NAACP, said that whoever is selected as the next president should be focused on ensuring the national organization's resources are funneled to state and local branches.
"We need, of course, someone with a vision and who is determined to make sure that the resources are there for the local levels," said Stansbury. "That's very important because they are actually the foot soldiers."
He praised Jealous for taking the NAACP "to a point where not only are we now on the streets, but we are also online."
Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins University professor who teaches about racial politics, argued that the NAACP is hamstrung to some degree by its own organization, including a 64-member board. And, he said, that board could face another tough fight over whether its next president, like Jealous, should come from a younger generation of leaders.
"The biggest challenge the NAACP has is that its board is far too large and far too old," Spence said. "While I agree that Ben has reinvigorated things, it's very difficult for an organization like the NAACP to work and to be fully effective."
The commemoration of the anniversary of the March on Washington last month underscored many challenges faced by the African American community — and, by extension, the NAACP — 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech on the National Mall.
President Barack Obama noted this year's Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act, which removed federal oversight of election laws passed in states with a history of discrimination. Several others pointed out that unemployment among blacks remains nearly double that of whites — a gap that has not changed significantly since the 1960s.
While Jealous, a Silver Spring resident, was not involved in the struggles of the 1960s, his parents were closely tied to the movement in Maryland.
His mother, Ann Todd Jealous, who is black, is a psychotherapist from Baltimore who participated in Western High School's desegregation. His father, Fred Jealous, who is white, runs a school for middle-aged men and participated in Baltimore sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters.
For Mitchell, many of those struggles continue in a different form. And that's part of the reason, he said, why the NAACP's leadership is so important.
"I've heard it said that we have a black president, so race isn't an issue," he said. "But when you look at the Trayvon Martin case and you look at employment discrimination and housing discrimination — those things are still taking place."
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