He's a 35-year-old foundation executive and former journalist who has been tapped to bring new relevancy - and new members - to the nation's oldest civil rights organization. With the selection of Benjamin Todd Jealous as its new president, the 99-year-old National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is sending a clear message that a tireless workhorse for equality and justice can still have fresh legs.
It's an important message as Barack Obama, only a decade older than Mr. Jealous, is poised to become the first African-American to secure the Democratic Party's nomination for president. Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Jealous cut their professional teeth on civil rights causes, and represent a new generation of African-American leaders. Mr. Jealous, who spent several summers in Baltimore as a youth and currently heads the Rosenberg Foundation in San Francisco, will be especially challenged at the NAACP to confront issues of economic inequality and limited opportunities that still leave a disproportionate number of minorities living in poverty. At the same time, he needs to draw more people between the ages of 20 and 50 to the organization. Many of them reflect civil rights progress in achieving middle-class status, but they don't readily support an organization they may view as having outlived its usefulness. They'll have to be persuaded to change their minds if the NAACP is to survive and thrive. Nearly half the paid staff was let go last year in a successful effort to retire debt and to allow Mr. Jealous to start his tenure with a $1 million budget. But he'll be expected to increase fundraising, promote online advocacy and energize voters. He might also target the abysmal state of many public schools that no longer can offer African-Americans a solid education. Those are high, but necessary, ambitions for the NAACP as it prepares to celebrate its centennial.