New NAACP Leader Looks Ahead

New NAACP Leader Looks Ahead

National Public Radio
Tell Me More

Michel Martin, Host

Benjamin Jealous is the new president of the NAACP. Jealous, a former news executive and lifelong human rights activist, discusses his new post and the ever-changing role of the NAACP in the civil rights movement.


I’m Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. In a moment, the Mocha Moms on going green as a family. They’ll talk about ways to get started. And things never to say to Asian-American colleagues. We start our series on how to be mindful of the sensibilities of others in our increasingly diverse workplaces.

But first, one of the country’s oldest civil rights organizations gets a new leader. The NAACP chose a new president on Saturday, 35-year-old human rights activists Benjamin Todd Jealous. He will be the youngest president ever in the history of the 99-year-old civil rights organization. His election comes after the organization tries to recover from a period of internal strife to engage a new generation of members and to refocus its mission. Ben Jealous joins us now to talk about his new post and hopefully a little bit about himself. Welcome to the program. Congratulations.

Mr. BEN JEALOUS (President, NAACP): Thank you. Thank you. It’s great to be here.

MARTIN: You’ve had a couple of days to take it all in. Can you describe what it means to lead this historic organization founded by giants like W. E. B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells Barnett.

Mr. JEALOUS: Those two are a big deal to me. I come out of the black press, that’s how I learned how to do what I did for Amnesty [International], and so it’s extremely humbling. You know, at the same time, as a parent of a 2-and-a-half-year-old girl, I’m extremely impatient and want to focus on the now, you know, want to focus on the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline and on making sure that this great association is as important in the 21st century as it was in the last century…

…MARTIN: Your profile is a bit different from past leaders in a number of respects—I mean, the fact that you are not a minister or a politician. One other interesting thing about you is that you are also biracial, as is Barak Obama, as is the lieutenant Governor [Anthony G. Brown] of Maryland, as is the mayor [Adrian Fenty] of Washington.

Mr. JEALOUS: Can I, can I make a small correction there?

MARTIN: Of course.

Mr. JEALOUS: I’m black. You know, the only thing that we have, you know, the only definition that’s out there on the books, if you will, are state laws, and my family is from Virginia. When I was born it said, the law said that you had to be 1/32nd, excuse me, if you were at least 1/32nd of African descent, you were black, end of story. White was an exclusive definition, black was an inclusive definition. I do have biracial parentage but quite frankly…

MARTIN: You don’t consider yourself biracial.

Mr. JEALOUS: No, I mean, I don’t understand it, I mean the… my grandmother’s much fairer than I am, has straight hair. You know, the reality is that, you know, our family, like most families were sort of created in the Jeffersonian model. You know, we were raped on Virginia plantations, and you know, all of those kids were black.

MARTIN: But your parents weren’t? I mean, that’s not your parents.

Mr. JEALOUS: Yeah, right but what I’m saying is that…

MARTIN: What I’m curious about though is that, is there something, is there an important cultural moment here, or not?

Mr. JEALOUS: No, I mean you know, yeah it is significant, I think the most significant thing about my parents is that you know, a year after their marriage was illegal, it was made legal because of the work of the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund.

You know, my parents—when they were married in Washington, D.C., in 1966, they had to be married there because they couldn’t get married where they lived in Baltimore. When they drove back for the party in Baltimore, people pulled off the side of the road, took off their hat because they thought it was a funeral procession passing, because there was a Cadillac in front of a bunch of cars with their lights on.

So, you know, and my father was disowned not by his two brothers or his mom, but by the entire rest of his family. And his family was in Salem in 1636, and they’re a big family. And they disowned him, not because they didn’t believe that he loved my mom. You know, his great uncle, I mean my great uncle drove out, sat down with them, said we believe that you love this woman, but you know I’m a man, I know a man can love many women, and you need to fall out of love quick or you’re going to be out of this family.

So, you know, the notion biracial I just think is blunt and crude and ahistorical, and to say biracial parentage, of course. I completely, you know, I’ve done more research on my father’s history, I think, on all the white cousins that I’m in touch with, and the ones who didn’t disown us were much in touch with, I love very much, if you know somebody named Jealous it’s probably one of them…

Read the entire transcript here.  Listen to the episode here (00:17:13).

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