Five years ago, Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, made two promises. The first was to the NAACP to help the organization get to the next level, revitalizing the mission and the relevancy of the storied civil rights group for the 21st century and old and new battles ahead. The second promise was to his then 3-year-old daughter that he would return to being a full-time daddy in five years. He says now is the time to keep that second promise.
“Leadership involves knowing when to step up, and when to step down,” Jealous said Monday on a telephone call with reporters.
Looking back at his accomplishments, he mentioned how the annual revenue of the NAACP doubled from $23 million in 2007 to $46 million in 2012. Donors also increased from 16,000 to 132,000 over the same period. According to Jealous, the NAACP has more activists online (1.3 million) and on mobile devices (more than 430,000) than any other civil rights organization.
“We’re not just more powerful and more effective and larger, we are also financially solvent and more sustainable,” Jealous said with pride.
And many activists agree.
Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century, a group that works to build economic social and political power in Black communities, said that Jealous energized the NAACP by bringing a lot of young talented and gifted people on board.
He also said Jealous highlighted the issues of environmental justice, mass incarceration and the war on drugs.
“[Jealous] uplifted these issues as being vitally important to healing and revitalizing sectors of Black America moving forward,” said Daniels. “There is a way that people tend to stay in these positions for a very long time, five years is not a long time. His tenure was really successful and I was actually looking forward to more.”
Al Sharpton, president and founder of the National Action Network, said that he had mixed emotions when he learned that Ben Jealous would resign from the NAACP.
“I am happy that he has done so well and leaves his post with no scandal, shame, or physical challenges, and young enough to have a bright future,” said Sharpton in a press release. “There is sadness, however, because for the last several years he has joined Marc Morial (National Urban League president), Melanie Campbell (president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation), and me as we tried to broaden the civil rights leadership of the 21st century movement. Ben Jealous has operated with integrity and a real sense of hands-on activism.”
Mary Frances Berry, history professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and former chairperson of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, was on the NAACP selection committee to pick a successor to Bruce Gordon.
“We expected him to make the organization financially solvent and he did,” said Berry. “We hoped by appointing someone younger and someone new that had a lot of energy and interest in the organization that it would create a more livelier organization.”
She said he accomplished that mission.
“[Jealous] stayed on the case all the time and he made sure that the NAACP was in the forefront of trying to deal with the emerging issues,” Berry explained. “That it is positioned to deal with some of these major issues like the economy. He made it stronger and more possible for the [NAACP] to go to the next level.”
Jealous said that once he steps down at the end of the year, he will dedicate more time at home being a dad, help train the next generation of leaders and work on a political action group that can help Black, Latino and other progressive candidates of color compete for leadership positions in the South.
Jealous tenure was not without its problems.
In 2010, the NAACP became embroiled in the firing of Shirley Sherrod, an official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A doctored video posted by a right-wing website appeared to show Sherrod making racist remarks recounting how she didn’t’ help a White farmer as much as she should have.
Without reviewing the original video, Jealous backed her dismissal. He later viewed the full tape, retracted his initial statement, and claimed he had been “snookered.” The NAACP urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to give Sherrod her job back at the USDA.
Sherrod accepted the NAACP’s apology and Jealous was able to put that incident behind him.
As the NAACP begins its search for the next president and CEO, Berry said the organization still needs someone who can maintain the financial solvency and keep the progress going with the membership and the leadership.
Daniels said that it’s important that the next president of the NAACP continue to foster a strong relationship with the faith-based community.
Rev. Amos Brown, pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco, Calif. since 1976, agrees.
“The Black church is the base for political engagement in the Black community and that’s why we have got to maintain that relationship with the church,” said Brown, an NAACP board member. “Because of our condition in this country, the Black folks of America are the most religious group of people in the world, and the Black church, for good or ill, has been our forum.”
Jealous recognizes that he leaves the organization although stable at a time of great change in the country.
Jealous said that the first century of the organization’s existence their work revolved around federal court cases. Now in the second century, Jealous said that the NAACP’s focus has shifted from federal litigation to state legislation. Addressing issues at the state level will take more boots on the ground and more diverse collaborations.
“We have to get much more adept at building big robust coalitions of people,” he said, listing the NAACP’s recent efforts in bringing together Black, Latino, gay rights groups and city council members representing Muslim and Arab populations to effectively combat the “stop-and-frisk” tactics conducted by the New York City Police Department. Recently, a judge ruled those tactics unconstitutional in practice a major victory for the NAACP and its partners.
Jealous said, “That is how a democracy works and we in the civil rights community have been rising to that challenge and becoming more effective.”