Ben Jealous Talks to Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The outgoing NAACP president speaks to The Root's editor-in-chief about his decision to step down.

Benjamin Todd Jealous, NAACP president and CEO, plans to step down in January. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Benjamin Todd Jealous, NAACP president and CEO, plans to step down in January. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

(The Root) — NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous — the young leader who has served as the face of the nation’s largest civil rights organization for the past five years — has shocked many with the announcement that he’ll step down from his post Dec. 31.

In an in-depth conversation with The Root‘s editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jealous detailed the highly personal considerations that led to his decision, spoke frankly about his greatest successes and failures, and — placing his decision in the context of American civil rights history — made predictions about the upcoming battles for the organization and a changing nation.

Henry Louis Gates Jr: This has been a very busy year for civil rights issues both historically and contemporarily. There have been many coinciding anniversaries — the Emancipation Proclamation, the March on Washington; the history of the civil rights movement has been resonating through society. So of all the years for the leader of the oldest and most prestigious civil rights organization, an organization that planned the civil rights movement, to step down — it seems extraordinary. So, why, my brother, have you decided to step down at this time?

Benjamin Todd Jealous: As I told our board, leadership involves knowing when to step up and when to step down. Five years ago I stepped up to help take the national efforts of the NAACP, the nation’s largest and oldest civil rights organization, to the next level, and five years later we’re not just the biggest civil rights organization on the street, which we’ve been for over a century, but we’re also now the biggest online, with 1.3 million online activists, the biggest on mobile — we have more than 430,000 people mobilized on their cell phones throughout the country.

We signed up 374,553 new voters last fall; we moved more than 1.2 million new and unlikely voters to the polls. And all of that’s been fueled by an almost tenfold increase in our database, and a doubling of our revenues since December 2007. We went from 23 million per year to 6 million per year. Five years in the black, five years with double-digit growth.

And that means that we’re not just larger and more powerful and in many ways more dynamic, but we’re also financially stronger and more sustainable. So it seems like the right time …

HLG: You gave a list of impressive developments over the last five years. When historians write about the history of the NAACP and they talk about the “Jealous era,” how will they characterize your period of leadership?

BTJ: What I hope is that they will look back on the period and say this was a time where we prepared for the challenges of the 21st century and demonstrated that we were ready to meet them. A time of explosive growth in our network of activists throughout the country, the time when we shifted very dynamically from being primarily focused on federal remedies to being primarily focused on state and city remedies. The time when we won big battles.

I mean, in this past year, we have won far more battles to defend voting rights and expand voting rights, and we have lost battles with those trying to suppress voting rights. In six years, we’ve abolished the death penalty in six states including the hard-fought battle in Maryland, the first state below the Mason-Dixon line to abolish the death penalty.

So I hope people will see that it’s a time when we started to demonstrate that not only does the country have a great future for expanding its civil rights protections and achieving the goal that Frederick Douglass laid out for us — for us to realize our destiny to be the greatest example of humanity that the world has ever seen — but also a time, quite frankly, when we began to demonstrate that the days of the South being a bunker for hatred and division and racism and backwardness are numbered.

That’s not just because of the increase in the black population of the South and the migration of the South and the migration of Latinos to the South, but also, quite frankly, in the rise in a generation of young white people that are simply less hung up on race than the white folks before them. And a rise in a generation of all colors who are just ready to move forward together …