An NAACP chapter of a different hue
Aiming to expand his membership, national president explains, 'Colored people come in all colors'

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.

Though the organization has 2,200 chapters, Jealous has taken a special interest in this Maine group because of the NAACP's ongoing attempts to reach beyond its core in the black community. The association's membership has been stagnant at about half a million members for years, and part of Jealous's plan to increase that number is to be more inclusive.

He has formed an alliance around health-care reform with the country's largest Latino advocacy group, and in recent speeches has highlighted examples of diversity in the NAACP's ranks: the Bangladeshi chapter president in Hamtramck, Mich.; the Southeast Asian presidents in Seattle and San Jose; the Latino executive committee members in the Southwest; the Native American members in Alabama and Oklahoma.

More than any other example, though, the Maine prison chapter has become a kind of symbol of the 100-year-old civil rights group finding its way on the shifting terrain of race. Jealous talks about the chapter frequently, and as he deals with questions about the organization's relevance since Barack Obama was elected to the White House, he has returned here again and again.

Today's trip is his third since becoming president in September 2008. A busy man with a busy schedule, he once again finds himself in this large room with a crowd of mostly white prisoners, greeting a dark-haired white man in starched prison blues with the words, "Hi, Mr. President."

A voice for inmates

The man Jealous is talking to is William "Billy" Flynn, who is in for 28 years to life and is also president of the prison chapter. "All right, gentlemen," Flynn says, stepping to the microphone.

A poster of Malcolm X delivering his "By Any Means Necessary" speech is affixed to the front of the lectern. A cinder block wall is covered in fliers that read: "NAACP You Have the Right to Vote" and posters of Obama, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali. In more than a dozen posters, no one is white.

"There's some confusion when people see an Irish guy as president of the NAACP chapter," Flynn says later. "I've had my fair share of comments."

Standing behind the poster of Malcolm X, Flynn talks about what he considers the lack of rights for prisoners. Sentenced at 16 after pleading guilty to a highly publicized New Hampshire murder, Flynn, now 35, has spent his adult life behind bars. He did not know anything about the NAACP when he arrived and is surprised to learn that he is one of the few whites leading an organization chapter.

The history he does know comes from a few well-worn pages photocopied from books, passed down from the men who chartered the chapter to try to improve conditions in the majority-white prison. From those pages, he learned that the NAACP was founded 100 years ago by both blacks and whites, a fact he enthusiastically repeats whenever anyone asks him what a white man is doing in charge.

And if the question is why he is in the association at all, he explains that it seems better than the Jaycees and the Longtimers, the only other organizations the prison allows, because the NAACP chapter receives outside support. The leaders of the Portland NAACP branch and Jealous have been willing to meet with prison officials on behalf of the inmates. With "an extra-powerful support group on the street," Flynn says the prisoners can get the officials' attention. They have been able to get them to grant them lower phone rates and to issue new rules that let social groups meet more often.

Joseph "JJ" Jackson -- the chapter's vice president, who is black -- was locked up in May 1995 and knows Flynn well. "This is a black organization, but you have that felon beside your name and that makes you a minority," he says. "You're treated like you're black. Frankly, everybody needs civil rights here."

Flynn and Jackson take their work seriously. Flynn says he runs his meetings according to Robert's Rules of Order and mails out the minutes to the Portland branch of the NAACP, which sends them to the NAACP national headquarters in Baltimore, where Jealous's assistant reviews them. Together, the inmates and their backers on the outside were able to organize this meeting, where prisoners can register to vote.

During the gathering, Flynn tells the inmates seated before him in plastic chairs that Maine is one of only two states that gives inmates that right. He soon finishes his speech and sits down while the men fill out their cards.

A wary female guard stands at the door, eyes darting from face to face. Another guard walks the edges of the room. A prison administrator stands at the back holding her hand over her mouth as she talks to the guard next to her so that the inmates can't read her lips. The prisoners remain orderly and calm.

A rainbow of prisoners

Then Jealous speaks. He takes a moment to look out at his audience. A Native American with long black hair is sitting four rows from the front; and two black men, one bald and another with cornrows, are sitting in the back row. A Latino man is near the front, and a South Asian man is in the center of the crowd. The rest are white.

"It was pointed out that the name of the NAACP is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. That confuses folks sometimes," says Jealous, standing behind the wooden lectern. "As they say, colored people come in all colors."

The inmates laugh.

"No one should be denied the right to vote in this country -- period," Jealous ends.

From the front row, the grizzly-bear-looking inmate, named Richard, stands to applaud. Most of the other men do, too.

During this week, Jealous will travel to six states in six days, but unlike the fundraiser in Boston and the anti-police-brutality rally outside of Chicago, here he is confined. He cannot work the room, so he stands stiffly and takes a few questions.

Soon a guard taps Flynn on the shoulder. "Time to go. Wrap it up."

Jealous stands by the door -- another guard hovering over his shoulder -- shaking hands as the men file out. The buff young white man wearing a white T-shirt and gray sweats, says "Thank you." So does the chubby balding man with glasses. The gray-haired man with the blue letters tattooed on his forehead slips out without a word.

"Thank you. Thank you, sir. Appreciate it. All right," Jealous says as they leave.

The Native American inmate stops the line.

"Do you think you can help the red man get his headband like you helped the Muslim get his kufi?" he asks Jealous, who tells him to talk to Flynn and Jackson.

Jealous is then ushered out, too, back through the prison courtyard. Through a metal door that bangs shut behind him. He returns the safety beeper and is given his BlackBerry and ID. He shakes hands with the warden, Jeffrey Merrill, who thanks him for coming and invites him back. "It's educational," Merrill says. "The men need that."

Across the prison, doors are closing as the inmates are returned to their cells. Clang. Clang.

Outside, another door closes with a soft click.

"It's nice for a change not to see so many black folks," Jealous says as he pulls away.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company