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NAACP head hopes to mobilize voters

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By age 6, Benjamin Todd Jealous had read through all of the books about African-Americans in his elementary school library and inquired why there weren't more.

At 7, he told his family that he wanted to become a civil rights lawyer. At 14, he organized his first voter registration drive.

And now, at 35, he has become the youngest person ever to lead the century-old NAACP.

"This is a big day," he said yesterday at a news conference outside the NAACP's Baltimore headquarters. "Across the country, there are people in my generation who have checked out from this organization, and this is my day to say to them: 'Check back in.' "

The organization hopes that its president-elect will recapture the passion and relevance of its storied past as it prepares for its 100th birthday, at a time when African-Americans are surging to the polls, electrified by the presidential election.

But detractors said yesterday that Jealous is too green to take command of the organization and worried that the decision to pass over a powerful Texas pastor signals that the organization is moving away from traditional ties to black churches and known civil rights leaders. "There is an anti-preacher sentiment," said Amos C. Brown, a NAACP board member and pastor of the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco.

"Nobody has ever heard of him. He's never been to our church," Brown said.

Brown complained that only one person -- Jealous -- was brought before the board and said there should have been more choices. Other finalists for the post had reportedly included Alvin Brown, a senior adviser to former President Bill Clinton; and the Rev. Frederick D. Haynes III, pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas.

"How are you going to be relevant when you are not reasonable and righteous within your own house?" Brown demanded.

The 64-member board voted yesterday after an arduous, eight-hour, closed-door meeting that ended near 3 a.m. at the Westin Baltimore International Airport hotel. Chairman Julian Bond refused to release the vote totals yesterday afternoon, but Brown, who participated, said the tally was 34 in favor and 21 opposed.

Jealous acknowledged yesterday that there are fences that need mending but brushed off concerns that he is too young. "I've been a man for a long time," he said.

For the past 13 months, the organization has been led by interim President Dennis C. Hayes, who took over when Bruce S. Gordon left suddenly in March 2007 after clashing with the board.

The organization made deep staff cuts last year, reducing its paid employees from 119 to 60. Those efforts allowed the group to retire its debt and amass $1 million in the budget to pass on to Jealous. "We are in the black, no pun intended," said Hilary C. Shelton, NAACP lead lobbyist.

His supporters say they hope he can use the national energy generated by Sen. Barack Obama's run for president to attract new people to a 500,000-member organization that has struggled to keep the attention -- and dollars -- of those in their mid-20s, 30s and 40s. They also see him as the person to usher the organization into a modern age by promoting online advocacy, encouraging voter turnout and beefing up fundraising.

"We do believe that he will lift the NAACP to great heights," Bond said at a board meeting in Northwest Baltimore yesterday. Bond said that the organization still expects to move its headquarters to Washington.

Yesterday afternoon, Jealous, his mother, Ann Todd Jealous, and several other of his Baltimore-area family members attended the executive board's quarterly meeting and spoke to reporters during a break.

"He's been on this path since he was a young boy," said Ann Todd Jealous, who lives in Pacific Grove, Calif. She is black; his father, Fred Jealous, is white.

Though Jealous was born and grew up in California, his family has strong roots in this area. His mother was in the city this weekend to attend Western High School's 50-year class reunion and learned on Friday that her son would likely become president of the NAACP.

"We're very proud," she said. "We're proud of who he is as a human being." She joked that with his family alone, there would be 100 new members signing up for the NAACP.

She grew up in McCulloh Homes but eventually moved to Ashburton. She settled in California but would send her son to spend his summers in Baltimore with his grandmother, Mamie Bland Todd.

"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 said.

In college, Jealous, a self-described firebrand, worked as a community organizer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund while balancing his studies. In 1993, he was suspended from Columbia University 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 moved to Mississippi and worked as a reporter for the Jackson (Miss.) Advocate before returning several years later to Columbia, where he earned a political science degree. Later, he studied comparative social research as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University.

As a reporter, Jealous was "young and gung-ho," said Alice Tisdale, who published the Advocate with her late husband, Charles Tisdale. "He was a young college student eager to learn," she said. "He knew a lot of history about the Deep South and embraced the people who had been in the civil rights struggle. He was eager to listen and draw on their experience.

"The newspaper played an advocacy role in the community, and Jealous was eager to take on issues of discrimination in his reporting," Tisdale said.

"I think it is the best thing that could happen to the NAACP; Ben is so versatile," she said. "He's very compassionate, but yet he is levelheaded. He has the ability to listen, but he also has the ability to sway people to come to his way of thinking. He is a great thinker, an intellectual, but yet he can reach the common man."

Jealous said he is drawn to the organization because of his dedication to civil rights and an optimism that racial discrimination can be surmounted.

"I have the energy of a 35-year-old," he said. "And I have a 2 1/2 -year-old daughter. And despite the privileges my wife and I have had, we fear for how she will be treated at school. We fear that her heart may be broken because she'll have a classmate shot and killed. And so it's the confidence, the optimism of relative youth, and the sense of impatience and outrage of a parent raising a small black child in this country."

Jealous said he will make fundraising a priority, tapping into a network of foundation leaders he has come to know around the nation.

He also hopes to recruit more NAACP members, particularly in the "crucial ages between 20 and 50."

"Right now, we do a good job of people who are below 25 and retaining members above 50 and 55," he said.

The 20-to-50-year-old group "is diverse, but they are similar in many ways. They are online, they are busy, they are financially pressed. We have to find a way to engage these people and focus on fighting civil rights at the local level."

Jealous said most urgently, he would press for a get-out-the-vote effort in the presidential election:

"We need to make sure we have sufficient resources to help turn out voters in November. I don't care who they vote for. They need to vote. We need to make sure that the NAACP has the resources it needs to be a powerful mobilizer of black voters this fall," he said.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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