NAACP President Benjamin Jealous reaches out to a changing membership

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By Krissah Thompson
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

WARREN, MAINE -- Benjamin Todd Jealous pulls in front of the prison compound, passes through the only unlocked door in the building and surrenders his BlackBerry and driver's license to guards. He is ushered quickly through a metal detector, then past a heavy green door that clangs shut.

A guard hands him a big beeper to clip to his tailored gray suit. "Push the red button if you feel threatened," he is told. The beepers are given only to the prison's most important visitors, and Jealous -- the national president of the NAACP -- qualifies.

He is led down a concrete path into a courtyard surrounded by a four-story-high chain-link fence topped with glinting barbed wire. He then passes through another heavy door that locks with a click and finally into a large room where 92 inmates are waiting.

A grizzly bear of a white man with a shock of gray hair on his chin stares from the front row. Near him, a young white guy, arms thick with muscles, leans back in his chair. Three rows behind, a balding white man with blue letters tattooed across his forehead sits quietly. White face after white face, inmate after inmate -- a sea of white men with few exceptions.

Here they are: the Maine State Prison Chapter of the NAACP.

And here is Jealous: on a mission to do no less than revitalize his aging organization in a racially changing America.

In other words, a sales call.

"Hey, guys," he says.

On the drive up from Portland to Warren, Jealous laughed at the memory of his first trip to the prison. When he sat down with the warden and said, "Thanks for bringing me to Maine. My grandfather is buried here," an awkward feeling of surprise hung in the room.

"There are things you just don't expect the president of the NAACP to say," Jealous said, driving through the countryside.

And there are places the president of the NAACP is just not expected to be. Such as a prison, in Maine, which, according to census projections, is 95.3 percent white, making it the whitest state in the country.

"No one's been here in half a century," Jealous said, zooming past a small town. By "no one," he meant no one from the NAACP's top leadership.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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