Hopeful note sounded for NAACP chief

Delegates hope Jealous can end organization's time of troubles

July 18, 2008|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun Reporter

CINCINNATI - NAACP delegates left the 99th annual convention here yesterday hopeful that its young president-elect can successfully bring the nation's oldest civil rights organization into a new century.

Although they caught only a glimpse of Benjamin Todd Jealous, 35, many delegates of the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said they were impressed by what they heard and saw. After going a year and a half without a president while battling financial troubles and dwindling membership, the NAACP has an opportunity to reinvent itself under Jealous, they said.

"I think it's a start of a new beginning," said George Young, a retired firefighter from Jacksonville, Fla. "If we don't come into the 21st century, it will be over for us."

Maria Macon of Ackerman, Miss., said she hoped that reluctant NAACP veterans would trust Jealous to shape the group's vision. "With past presidents, the leadership left no latitude," she said. "And they clashed. He needs the latitude, but they must also have faith and confidence in the direction he takes. Let's pray that happens."

Jealous, who received high praise from Chairman Julian Bond, was elected in May by a split 64-member board of directors. Opponents worried that his civil rights background was too thin. Jealous and the board are still working out the details of his contract.

"I think he's done a decent job of trying to sell himself," said J. Whyatt Mondesire, a board member from Philadelphia. "He has a very uphill battle because he has no history in this organization. But we would do nothing to try to hurt him or embarrass him."

Jealous plans to start in September, after three years as executive director of the San Francisco-based Rosenberg Foundation, an organization that supports social justice organizations. Before that, he worked for Amnesty International and was executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, an organization of 200 black-owned community newspapers.

A Rhodes scholar, Jealous has told NAACP delegates that his interest in civil rights blossomed early. He told his family he wanted to become a civil rights lawyer at age 7. At 14, he conducted his first voter registration drive.

In his first remarks to the membership, Jealous said he recognized that the NAACP is at a critical crossroads and pledged to keep it relevant in the modern era. He also referred his civil rights credentials, highlighting his family's activism. His mother, Ann Todd Jealous, raised in Baltimore, was among the first students to integrate Western High School.

Everywhere he went, Jealous spoke admiringly of the organization's nearly 100-year battle against injustice.

"We will recapture the zeal of our founders, while realizing the power of everything from blogging to social networking to straight-up marching," he told an enthusiastic crowd during his speech Monday.

Although Jealous declined to do news media interviews, he spent a frenetic week shuttling between meetings and mingling with members. He appearing relaxed and outgoing, clad in jeans and a blazer, with his wife, Lia Epperson, his mother and 2-year-old daughter in tow.

Jealous takes over following a difficult two years for the organization.

President and CEO Bruce S. Gordon resigned abruptly in March 2007, after frequent clashes with the board over the organization's vision.

Several months after the former Verizon executive resigned, NAACP leaders revealed a deficit of more than $1 million, forcing leadership to cut the staff at the Baltimore headquarters by about 40 percent and close seven regional offices.

Earlier this year, Bond said the organization had erased the deficit and was now in the black.

But members such as Macon said the NAACP could not take its improved finances for granted.

"The NAACP often encounters red tape in fundraising because some donors don't think it can properly manage its money," said Macon, a grant writer for nonprofit organizations.

Still, Bond said, the organization has a lot to celebrate on the eve of its centennial, including the speeches by both presidential contenders, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain. Obama, the first black to clinch a major-party nomination for president, received a frenzied welcome.

Moments before McCain took the stage, Bond announced that the NAACP had received a $1 million anonymous donation toward voter registration and education efforts.

Bond called voter registration the cornerstone of NAACP activism. He even declared that any branch not doing so ought to have its charter revoked - a comment that drew loud applause.

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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