In September, with his selection as the new president and CEO of the NAACP, Ben Jealous became, at 35, the youngest president in the organization’s history. He represents a new generation of Black leadership—one of many Black adults and youths who grew up benefitting from the increased access to education and opportunity opened up by the Civil Rights Movement, which was spearheaded by the NAACP. His challenge is to honor that legacy by building the next phase of the movement of those who struggled before him by focusing on those still in need.
Jealous comes from a family committed to social justice whose members have belonged to the NAACP for five generations. During the 1950s his Black mother was one of the first students to desegregate her Baltimore high school, and his White father participated in sit-ins and other civil rights protests. Jealous himself has been a political activist since he organized a voter registration drive at age 14. As a college student at Columbia University, he worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) in Harlem as a community organizer. His wife, law professor Lia Epperson, is a former LDF litigator and director of its education law and policy group. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia, Jealous won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University where he received a master’s degree in comparative social research.
He served as a field organizer in Mississippi, documenting human rights abuses there while working as a reporter and managing editor for the Jackson Advocate. Later, he directed the U.S. Human Rights Program of Amnesty International in Washington, D.C., focusing on topics such as racial profiling and the U.S. courts’ practice of condemning children to life sentences without the possibility of parole. Most recently he was president of the Rosenberg Foundation based in San Francisco in his home state of California whose mission includes serving working-class families and recent immigrants.
As president of the NAACP, one of Jealous’s main goals is to engage more young people in the organization’s work at a seminal moment in the organization’s history as it prepares to celebrate its centennial in 2009. When the NAACP was founded in response to lynching and other serious threats to Black Americans at the beginning of the 20th century, it would have been nearly impossible for its early leaders such as Dr. W.E.B. DuBois to imagine what the organization would look like one hundred years later. However, DuBois was famously accurate in predicting in 1903 that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” He died in 1963 at age 95, one day before Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. DuBois had lived long enough to get a glimpse of how far Blacks had come during the century, but he would likely be dissatisfied by how far we have yet to go.
As Benjamin Jealous takes the helm of the NAACP, some of the injustices he wants to focus on are racially lopsided incarceration rates, persistent school segregation, and inner-city violence. Some of these problems, familiar a century ago, remain steep mountains for the contemporary civil rights movement to scale. With much left for the NAACP to do, there is an urgent need for the energy and enthusiasm of a new generation of NAACP leaders who can step up and take the baton for the next leg of the race for equal justice and opportunity. I hope many young people will be inspired by this new leader and pledge their support for the challenges ahead.