Young man moves up

Rejecting doubts that he is too young to head the NAACP, Benjamin Jealous moves to renew the organization

September 28, 2008|By Sumathi Reddy

Everyone wants to meet the new guy. And so as Benjamin Todd Jealous works the room at Baltimore's Annie E. Casey Foundation, there is a receiving line of sorts that forms everywhere he turns.

Roslyn M. Brock, vice chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's National Board of Directors, squires the 35-year-old Californian around the reception on the second day of his new job. He is the 17th CEO and president of the NAACP, "the youngest in our history, and THAT is something," she says as applause fills the room.

Indeed, the choice of Jealous to head the nation's oldest civil rights group on the eve of its centennial was no routine decision.

A divided NAACP board picked Jealous in May in a 34-21 vote, with some members saying he was too green to lead an organization with myriad challenges. The NAACP let go about half its staff last year to dig itself out of debt. Membership has declined, and its image has suffered. Clashes with the NAACP board led the former president, Bruce S. Gordon, to leave abruptly in March 2007.

Jealous has already started raising money and over the summer made an effort to reach out to board members in person and on the phone. Now, even some vocal opponents of his selection seem comfortable with him.

"He's a young man with great training," said Amos C. Brown, NAACP board member and pastor of the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco. "He's had experience in various areas, and coupling that experience with the needs of the NAACP, I think we'll have the best of both worlds in moving forward."

Brown added: "My questions earlier were regarding process and lack of information to convince me. Those questions have been answered for me."

Ronald Walters, director of the Center for African-American Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park, said Jealous' age won't be a liability "if he does the right thing, if he brings in a new generation of people."

"To me, picking him means the board clearly had that in mind," Walters said. "There will always be some members of the board who think he's too young, and if he makes some mistake, they'll say that's because he's too young. But here's a young man who, given the range of his experiences and his abilities, I don't think age is necessarily a problem."

Jealous grew up in Pacific Grove, Calif., a liberal enclave where talk of human rights and political debates was common dinner party fodder.

Activism started with his family. His mother, Ann Todd Jealous, who is black, is a psychotherapist from Baltimore who participated in Western High School's desegregation. His father, Fred Jealous, who is white, runs a school for middle-aged men and participated in Baltimore sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters.

Jealous attended public elementary and middle schools and went to a private Episcopal high school in Monterey. He spent summers as a boy with his grandmother in Baltimore.

He became conscious of his own mixed race and the issues that came with it at a very young age.

"The issue of race was always there," Jealous said. "When your mom's black and your dad's white and it's the 1970s, it's in your face all the time."

He added: "I can remember getting into a fight with a kid ... because he said I was rich because I had a nanny. He assumed the black woman who picked me up every day was my nanny."

It was his mother.

Jealous always showed an activist streak, relatives say. In preschool he got into a debate with his teacher about why he needed to take a nap when he wasn't tired, his grandmother, Mamie Todd, 91, recalled. His mother says that in the first grade he asked the librarian why they didn't have more books on African-Americans.

And as a teenager, his father took him to an event promoting Jesse Jackson's candidacy for president, and Jealous immediately signed up to organize youth to get out the vote.

Jealous attended Columbia University, where he protested everything from financial aid policy changes to the school's plan to turn the ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated into a biomedical research center. He was also a community organizer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Harlem.

"His leadership qualities have always stood out," said Judith Russell, who was a political science professor at Columbia and Jealous' adviser and teacher. "Not in an impulsive or rowdy or boisterous way. He just has a quality for measured evaluation, and he has a lot of passion.

"I've been teaching here 25 years or so, and I have a lot of amazing young people in my life. Every now and then you get intelligence and principles and courage and passion, and they kind of come together. And that's Ben. He just stands out."

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