NAACP signals start of new era

May 20, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

He's very Obama, isn't he?

The Ivy creds. The biracial parentage. The lawyer wife. The victory, after some contentious balloting, of his more youthful candidacy over the more establishment one.

The selection of Benjamin Jealous this weekend as the new president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People puts a decidedly fresh face on an organization that many have criticized as too rooted in the past. At 35, he is the civil rights organization's youngest president ever, and by picking him, board members seem to be saying, "This is not your father's NAACP."

What makes his rise noteworthy is that, like Barack Obama, Jealous didn't come up through church activism, the traditional launching pad for previous generations of black leaders. Neither arrives with "the reverend" title before his name, which had become almost standard, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

And, in fact, a bone of contention in his selection - which took place at a closed-door meeting of the NAACP board at a BWI hotel this weekend - appears to have been a lingering desire among some members to rally behind a more traditional choice, the Rev. Frederick D. Haynes III, pastor of a megachurch in Dallas.

Haynes is described by the Dallas Morning News as a protege of Obama's controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and apparently had the support of at least several fellow ministers on the NAACP board. One of them complained to The Sun's Kelly Brewington of an "anti-preacher sentiment" among his colleagues. And another minister, the Rev. Wendell Anthony of Detroit, issued a news release after the vote to note that while the new president had "a great deal of potential," Jealous was not his first choice and that he would have preferred Haynes.

The board ultimately went with Jealous - by a 34-21 vote, Brewington was told - but the fact that picking the president took eight hours, until 3 in the morning Saturday, reflects a considerable split.

But in a year in which change is in the air - or at least at Obama rallies - the selection has created buzz about a group that some had dismissed as no longer relevant.

At 38, Lester Spence, a Johns Hopkins professor who specializes in black politics, is closer in age to the hip-hop generation that figures often in his research than to the 1960s-era civil rights movement - as is Jealous.

"He wasn't even thought of when Martin Luther King was killed," Spence said. "He wasn't born until '72."

By choosing someone from a more technocratic than a church-based background, Spence said, the NAACP is starting to make good on its talk over recent years of looking toward the future and embracing youth.

"If we're going to modernize, we have to get rid of the tendency to rely on our pastors to do our political work," Spence said. "We have to have some semblance of a division of church and state in our black politics."

Spence says the NAACP still has its work cut out for it - what modern organization has a cumbersome 64-member board these days? - but thinks it might be able to attract a younger membership with Jealous at the helm.

For all the talk of change, though, Jealous doesn't represent a complete break from the past: His parents were active in desegregation efforts, and he has worked as an organizer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Plus, he has the support of one of the lions of the civil rights movement, Julian Bond, the NAACP chairman.

"He is someone immersed in the civil rights culture, so this is a continuation," said Ronald Walters, the director of the Center for African-American Leadership at the University of Maryland. "The departure is the age factor. You've got to say they're sending a signal of generational change."

Walters knows Jealous from a leadership forum that brings together the heads of the 25 top black organizations - the new NAACP president previously headed a national group of black newspapers - and remembers him as someone who frequently was the youngest person in the room.

"For a young man, he has a very extensive national network of contacts," said Walters, who is a life member of the NAACP.

With the NAACP coming off of several years of budgetary struggles, Walters thinks Jealous' background in running other organizations will serve him well in his new job.

"The fact that he comes from a foundation background," Walters said, means "he knows where the money is."

Now, if only Jealous, whose mother's family is from Baltimore, would consider keeping the national headquarters here rather than moving to Washington, as Bond has long planned.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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