Nation & World

Benjamin Jealous rejects doubts that he is too young to head the NAACP

Everyone wants to meet the new guy. And so as Benjamin Todd Jealous works the room at Baltimore's Annie E. Casey Foundation, there is a receiving line of sorts that forms everywhere he turns.

Roslyn M. Brock, vice chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's National Board of Directors, squires the 35-year-old Californian around the reception on the second day of his new job. He is the 17th CEO and president of the NAACP, "the youngest in our history, and THAT is something," she says as applause fills the room.


Indeed, the choice of Jealous to head the nation's oldest civil rights group on the eve of its centennial was no routine decision.

A divided NAACP board picked Jealous in May in a 34-21 vote, with some members saying he was too green to lead an organization with myriad challenges. The NAACP let go about half its staff last year 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.


Jealous has already started raising money and over the summer made an effort to reach out to board members in person and on the phone. Now, even some vocal opponents of his selection seem comfortable with him.

"He's a young man with great training," said Amos C. Brown, NAACP board member and pastor of the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco. "He's had experience in various areas, and coupling that experience with the needs of the NAACP, I think we'll have the best of both worlds in moving forward."

Brown added: "My questions earlier were regarding process and lack of information to convince me. Those questions have been answered for me."

Ronald Walters, director of the Center for African-American Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park, said Jealous' age won't be a liability "if he does the right thing, if he brings in a new generation of people."

"To me, picking him means the board clearly had that in mind," Walters said. "There will always be some members of the board who think he's too young, and if he makes some mistake, they'll say that's because he's too young. But here's a young man who, given the range of his experiences and his abilities, I don't think age is necessarily a problem."

Jealous grew up in Pacific Grove, Calif., a liberal enclave where talk of human rights and political debates was common dinner party fodder.

Activism started with his family. 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.

Jealous attended public elementary and middle schools and went to a private Episcopal high school in Monterey. He spent summers as a boy with his grandmother in Baltimore.


He became conscious of his own mixed race and the issues that came with it at a very young age.

"The issue of race was always there," Jealous said. "When your mom's black and your dad's white and it's the 1970s, it's in your face all the time."

He added: "I can remember getting into a fight with a kid ... because he said I was rich because I had a nanny. He assumed the black woman who picked me up every day was my nanny."

It was his mother.

Jealous always showed an activist streak, relatives say. In preschool he got into a debate with his teacher about why he needed to take a nap when he wasn't tired, his grandmother, Mamie Todd, 91, recalled. His mother says that in the first grade he asked the librarian why they didn't have more books on African-Americans.

And as a teenager, his father took him to an event promoting Jesse Jackson's candidacy for president, and Jealous immediately signed up to organize youth to get out the vote.


Jealous attended Columbia University, where he protested everything from financial aid policy changes to the school's plan to turn the ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated into a biomedical research center. He was also a community organizer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Harlem.

"His leadership qualities have always stood out," said Judith Russell, who was a political science professor at Columbia and Jealous' adviser and teacher. "Not in an impulsive or rowdy or boisterous way. He just has a quality for measured evaluation, and he has a lot of passion.

"I've been teaching here 25 years or so, and I have a lot of amazing young people in my life. Every now and then you get intelligence and principles and courage and passion, and they kind of come together. And that's Ben. He just stands out."

Jealous was eventually suspended for his roles in student protests and moved to Mississippi, where he was a field organizer for a campaign to stop the state from closing two historically black universities. He became a reporter for the Jackson Advocate, an African-American newspaper that was frequently firebombed, reporting on corruption among state prison officials and a black small farmer wrongfully accused of arson. He became managing editor.

After returning to Columbia to complete his political science degree, Jealous was awarded a Rhodes scholarship and studied comparative social research at Oxford University.

Jealous also worked as executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a federation of more than 200 black community newspapers.


Hazel Trice Edney worked with Jealous there when he hired her as the group's first female Washington correspondent.

As a journalist, Jealous pushed the reporters to write about issues such as prisoners' rights, the rights of black farmers and discrimination in the mortgage and automobile industries, she said.

Edney, now editor-in-chief of the association, described Jealous as a visionary, strategist and organizer. "He is a person who is able to ... to get people to come together even though they might not necessarily agree to come together for the cause of justice," said Edney. "His heart is really toward human and civil rights in America. It's not a job for him. It really is a mission."

Jealous was later director of the U.S. human rights program at Amnesty International from 2002 to 2005. Most recently he headed the Rosenberg Foundation, a San Francisco group that finances projects to help low-income families and other social justice organizations.

To those that have criticized him as being too young and inexperienced, he says, "Look at my record. I was 26 when I took over the reins of the National Black Newspapers Association. In three years I tripled their budget, tripled the staff. I got the entire industry to end a 90-year-tradition of receiving news from first-class mail and begin downloading it online. So when people look at the record, they see somebody who's more than up to the task."

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Education, including school discipline, and voter registration for the 2008 presidential election are among his priorities. And Jealous expects to boost membership by improving technology. "I'm very confident that will be able to reverse the trend in membership within my first term," he said.


As for ailing finances, Jealous announced at the Casey Foundation that he's already secured millions this summer, with promises for more. And he is hiring about 20 additional staffers.

Asked the question on the minds of many of those in attendance - whether the NAACP will move its headquarters from Baltimore to Washington - Jealous said that's still up in the air and would take millions of dollars and years to happen.

Jealous and his wife, Lia Epperson Jealous, and their 2 1/2 -year-old daughter, Morgan, are renting in Washington because his wife, a civil rights attorney who teaches law, will likely teach there. They are house hunting between the two cities, he said. "I would welcome a conversation with the mayor," he says, about keeping the NAACP in Baltimore.

In the meantime, he's just happy to be here, in the city where his parents met as elementary schoolteachers, and the city that was the site of some of his earliest summers with his grandmother.

"It's great to be back home," he says at the end of his remarks.

And it's back to the receiving line.