Tucked into a booth at Copper Canyon Grill in Silver Spring on Friday, Benjamin Jealous talked about what has been a closely guarded secret: his decision to step down as president of the NAACP come January.
In between bites of artichoke dip and bouts of nostalgia, Jealous addressed his legacy and his resignation, which is scheduled to be announced Monday. “As others questioned its vitality, we have been able to regrow the mightiest of all trees in the ecology of social justice,” he said. “I’m really going to miss the street fights we’ve been in.”
Jealous said he’s leaving the post to spend more time with his children and to raise funds to support African American candidates for political office.
Five years ago, when Jealous took the helm of the 104-year-old civil rights group, he became the youngest president in its history. At 35, he was a relative unknown in Washington circles, having been a Rhodes Scholar and nonprofit leader who had cut his teeth as an activist in New York and California, among other places.
There was skepticism: Could this young goatee-wearing man — born a decade after the major civil rights battles were won — restore the NAACP to relevancy? Was there a vigorous future for the organization in the political age of Obama?
“At the time, the NAACP was seen by many as a fading brand. It was seen as your grandmama’s organization if not your great-grandmama’s,” said Van Jones, a progressive activist who affectionately calls Jealous a “bad brother.” “He comes in and completely turns the place around in what seems like overnight.”
That turnaround focused on raising the organization’s media profile again and becoming almost frenetic in a push to address the issue of the moment — whatever it might be. No longer was the NAACP holding symbolic funerals for the N-word. It was campaigning to end the death penalty, texting young people to remind them to vote and taking on the tea party.
When Jealous leaves the NAACP in January, he will do so as one of the nation’s most prominent civil rights leaders and a man who has stood on the biggest political stages. He is a regular guest on cable news shows and has maintained a travel schedule that had him away from his Silver Spring home, wife Lia Epperson and their two young children 145 days a year.
Last week, Jealous said that his NAACP tenure was a sprint that has left the organization with more technological savvy and on sounder financial footing. It now has 420,000 mobile subscribers. The organization’s e-mail list has jumped from 174,000 names when Jealous joined to 1.3 million. In the 2012 election cycle, the NAACP registered 374,553 new voters — more than double the number it registered in 2008.
Given the NAACP’s periodic money woes and controversies, the most important numbers may be financial: According to the organization’s tax filings and numbers it provided, its revenue has grown from $25.6 million in 2008 to $46 million last year, and its individual donor base has expanded eightfold.
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said Jealous was “reflective of an effort committed to the restoration of the NAACP’s prestige and vitality” and that he had boosted the next generation of civil rights leaders.
Jealous’s impending departure, news of which he began to quietly share with prominent NAACP officials and allies last week, came as a surprise, NAACP Chairman Roslyn Brock said.
“He is in the first year of a three-year contract,” she said. “We were expecting many more years to work with Ben. But this is not a personality-based organization. It is a true institution. The work of the NAACP goes on.”
Jealous began to reconsider his contract last year when he went to a funeral of a woman he knew who had been the daughter of a civil rights activist. She died in her 70s, but friends recalled how much she pined all her life for more time with her father.
Jealous said he will spend more time with his 13-month-old son and 7-year-old daughter and is considering teaching offers from several universities. He wants to school young people in the tactics of social change. (His wife teaches constitutional law at American University.) The departure from the nonprofit world will also allow Jealous to start a partisan pursuit with which he has longed to involve himself.
There is a rising generation of leaders coming up behind Obama, Jealous said, and he wants to help raise money to fund their political campaigns.
“Emily’s List has been very effective for women candidates and there is no such organization for candidates of color, and I have never understood why,” he said.
It is not lost on Jealous that he is leaving the organization amid what some in his line of work have called a modern-day civil rights crisis. Earlier this year the Supreme Court negated a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. At the same time, many of the NAACP’s constituents are still smarting over the Florida verdict in which George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
There is also the complex relationship with the Obama administration that the next NAACP leader will be left to manage. In a meeting with Obama early in the president’s first term, Jealous described the president as receptive to the push Jealous made for removing some of the barriers to employment for the long-term unemployed.
“The president has generously and wisely kept a door open to the civil rights movement,” Jealous said. “The tensions have not been about the problem [of black unemployment] but the specific solutions.”
A mark of Jealous’s tenure was a focus on state-level activism. He took to the road for everything from supporting an NAACP chapter in Maine’s prison, one of the only predominantly white affiliates of the organization in the country, to rallying with Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley to end the death penalty in Maryland and protesting “stop and frisk” policies in New York City.
Jealous also at times stoked controversy. After the tea party became a political force in 2010, he condemned “racist elements” within that conservative movement, which reacted harshly to his criticism.
It was that back-and-forth that brought Jealous to the nadir of his presidency. In an effort to embarrass the NAACP, the late conservative media operator Andrew Breitbart posted a video of a little-known U.S. Department of Agriculture official named Shirley Sherrod. In the video, which was later found to be edited, Sherrod appeared to tell an NAACP crowd that she sanctioned discrimination against white farmers.
Within hours the department fired Sherrod. Jealous and the NAACP immediately and harshly condemned her statements without consulting Sherrod. The full video of Sherrod’s remarks showed her making a larger point about the need for poor farmers to work together across racial lines.
Jealous reversed himself and apologized. He flew to Albany, Ga., to meet with her. Sherrod, who helped to lead the civil rights movement in Albany, accepted the contrition.
NAACP has also put more focus on individual criminal justice cases, with mixed success.
“The doorway to a great cause is often a deeply tragic case,” Jealous said.
One of its key causes was the case of Troy Davis, who was convicted of murdering a Savannah, Ga., police officer. Jealous and others in the NAACP argued that Davis was innocent and, along with other organizations opposed to the death penalty, gathered a record number of petitions in the hopes to stay his death sentence. Ultimately, Davis was executed.
With the backing of Julian Bond, the civil rights activist and former chairman of the NAACP board, Jealous helped to lead the association to embrace a broader concept of civil rights.
Before Obama came out in support of same-sex marriage, Jealous personally pronounced his support and applauded passage of a resolution backing marriage equality by the NAACP’s board of directors — which has a rich history in the black church, including more conservative denominations long opposed to same-sex marriage. That move led some local officials around the country to step down.
“He’s taken risks, and he’s led with a lot of courage,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, who has partnered with Jealous in the effort to “link racial inequality and economic inequality” and support overhauling the nation’s immigration laws.
“To have friends, you’ve got to be a friend,” Jealous said of the partnerships. “In this century that is not just good advice, it’s necessary.”
Jealous also joined with conservatives, including anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. Both men endorsed NAACP’s report, “Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate,” which argued that the rise in prison spending has caused states to spend less on education. Jealous also stood with Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R-Va.), who moved to make it easier for ex-felons to regain voting rights, which the NAACP has long championed.
“Black America has a way of having a politics of nostalgia for folk that have been dead for 40 or 50 years as if nobody is doing anything today,” Jones said, pointing to Jealous’s work.
Jealous’s affable personality, big laugh and sometime stutter were on display Friday as he munched on a baguette and artichoke dip. (He is a vegetarian.)
He and NAACP Chairman Brock promise the organization’s transition will be smooth, though it is tough to know how it will play out. Nearly half of the NAACP’s paid staff members were hired by Jealous. His departure could be followed by others.
But Jealous said he will continue to stay involved.
He likes to note that his family has “continued its membership in the NAACP and was continuously involved” over five generations. His mother was part of the class of black girls who desegregated Baltimore’s Western High School for Girls. His father was one of the white men jailed during civil rights protests in Baltimore.
When he thinks about the organization’s future, he is reminded of a conversation he had with his 97-year-old grandmother, who was a lifelong NAACP member. Jealous told her that he had been named president of the organization.
He said she told him: “I was hoping the next president would be a woman. But if it has to be a man, I’m glad it is you.”
Jealous said he agrees with his granny. He is hoping the next president will be a woman.