In the spring of 2008, as the prospect that America would elect its first black president became more and more likely, the organization that did as much as any to make that watershed possible had fallen on hard times. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, America's oldest and best known civil rights group, was in disarray. It's last president and CEO had abruptly quit, and it had laid off half of its staff to balance the books. Its membership and relevance in what many were heralding as a post-racial America seemed destined to wane, and one of the defining institutions of the 20th century had no sure place in the 21st.
The answer to that challenge was an unlikely one: Benjamin Todd Jealous, a 35-year-old, bi-racial foundation president from California who was born a decade after the civil rights movement's greatest triumphs. To call his selection controversial would be an understatement. Some saw it not just as risky but as a repudiation of a century of sacrifice by the NAACP's members.
Five years later, he is leaving the NAACP a changed institution. Its finances are stabilized, its membership is up, its social media presence is robust and its role in American public life is clear and forceful. Mr. Jealous brought energy, vision and focus to an organization in need of all three and showed a new generation that the pursuit of social justice remains a vital cause in these and any times. And if we may be parochial for a moment, he kept its headquarters in Baltimore. We are proud to name him The Baltimore Sun's 2013 Marylander of the Year.
Mr. Jealous grew up in California but spent summers with his grandmother in Baltimore, the city where his parents had met and had participated in desegregation protests. Mr. Jealous was bitten by the activism bug early — he protested the paucity of books about African-Americans in his elementary school library and became a teen-age field organizer for Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign. His role in student protests in college at Columbia — notably including an effort to stop the university from turning the ballroom where Malcolm X was killed into a biomedical research center — got him suspended for a time. He moved to Mississippi and became a reporter for the Jackson Advocate, a storied African-American newspaper, quickly rising to the post of managing editor before returning to Columbia and, eventually, Oxford where he was a Rhodes scholar.
If the pulpit is the traditional proving ground for black political leaders in America, then Mr. Jealous' path to the NAACP was an unconventional one. But if one were to design a course of training for the challenges the NAACP faced when Mr. Jealous took over, it would be hard to do better than the career arc he followed. After Oxford, he became executive director of a federation of African-American newspapers, then director of Amnesty International's U.S. human rights program and finally head of the Rosenberg Foundation, a San Francisco group that finances projects related to economic and social justice. Those jobs provided him a national network for organizing, raising money and building collaborations, as well as a sense of the changing media landscape, all of which would prove crucial at the NAACP.
Julian Bond, the NAACP's chairman emeritus and Mr. Jealous' chief backer five years ago, said he stood out as the only candidate who had truly spent his entire life doing what the NAACP does: fighting for civil rights and social justice. Mr. Jealous has a commanding presence and a great sense of what to do, when to do it and with whom, Mr. Bond said.
"When you're an old organization that's been around a long time, people start to think you're just a bunch of old people," Mr. Bond said. "He has given us a presence in civil rights and the American community that we didn't have before."
Under Mr. Jealous' tenure, the NAACP's budget has nearly doubled, and its donor base has increased eight-fold. It registered twice as many voters for the 2012 presidential election as it did in 2008. The organization now reaches hundreds of thousands on Facebook and Twitter. Mr. Jealous wrote columns for local black newspapers but also for the Huffington Post.
Under his leadership, the NAACP has put itself at the forefront of the issues of the moment, including the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, the fight against voter ID laws and the protests over the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policies.
There were a few occasions where that tendency came back to bite him — notably his quick condemnation of what appeared to be racist remarks by U.S. Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod, who is African-American, and his subsequent apology after it turned out that the video of those remarks had been selectively edited to distort their meaning. But more often he has demonstrated an ability to pick skirmishes in the fight for justice lead to bigger victories.
He and NAACP Chairwoman Roslyn Brock — like Mr. Jealous, part of a new generation of leadership for the organization — pushed the NAACP into the fight for marriage equality, a cause that blacks had generally been slower to adopt than whites. That not only put the NAACP in the middle of the hottest social justice debate of our time but also helped forge a sense of the fight for civil rights as a universal struggle and not one of discrete groups pursuing their own interests. That's part of the reason why gay rights groups were among the voices condemning the Supreme Court's rejection of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. He built similar alliances by steering the NAACP into fights over immigration reform, including the referendum on Maryland's version of the Dream Act.
The effort to end capital punishment in America epitomizes Mr. Jealous' ability to combine on-the-ground organizing with strategic thinking. A year ago, the effort to ban the death penalty in Maryland appeared out of steam. Gov. Martin O'Malley's passionate advocacy on the issue had failed to sway the state Senate, and all indications were that Mr. O'Malley would not put the issue on his agenda again. Then he met with Mr. Jealous, who assured the governor he could provide vote counts showing majority support for a repeal in both chambers of the legislature. He did, and a month later, Mr. O'Malley stood by Mr. Jealous' side to announce he would make another all-out push for a repeal. This time, he would succeed.
"Maryland is a better state — and ours is a more perfect union — because of Ben Jealous and his commitment to justice, equality, and the dignity of every child's home," Governor O'Malley said. "Here in Maryland, he was an indispensable part of repealing the death penalty, passing the Maryland Dream Act, ensuring civil marriage equality and expanding access to voting."
In terms of stopping capital punishment, Maryland wouldn't seem to be the most important state to flip. There are only five people on death row, and the state has been operating under a de facto moratorium on executions for years. But Mr. Jealous saw the importance of changing the laws one state at a time — he had also been part of successful repeal efforts in New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Illinois and Connecticut. As he put it in a Sun op-ed, "Our strategy is clear: We will outlaw it in a majority of states, and then we will go to the United States Supreme Court and make the argument that the punishment is not only cruel by its very nature but also unusual because most states have passed laws against it."
That effort is still seven states short, but there are signs that attitudes are changing. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, there were only 39 executions in America in 2013, among the lowest totals in two decades, and the number of new death sentences handed down was near its lowest level since the 1970s. Just three states were responsible for three-quarters of executions this year. The day may soon come when this costly, discriminatory and barbaric form of punishment will be history, and for that, Mr. Jealous deserves much of the credit.
Mr. Jealous is leaving the NAACP in January to teach, spend more time with his young family and engage directly in electoral politics. He leaves behind an organization transformed in the nation's eyes and its own. "If he were applying today and the board knew him as they know him now," Mr. Bond said, "the choice would be unanimous. ... I know that absolutely."