NAACP head hopes to mobilize voters

President-elect, 35, brushes off concerns he's too young to lead civil rights group

May 18, 2008|By Annie Linskey and Kelly Brewington | Annie Linskey and Kelly Brewington,Sun reporters

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.

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