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)

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 HLG: So the board will select your successor. And your successor, she or he will come to you if they have any sense for advice. And so, if your successor says to you, “Ben, what do you think are the major challenges facing our organization over the next decade?” And the corollary would be what are the impediments to addressing those challenges. How would you answer?

BTJ: When the board selects my successor, I’ll tell them that the most important things that I did to prepare for this success were to make sure the operations were strong, that the organization was financially healthy and that the team has a deep bench of leadership at the national headquarters so that they can come in and run at a marathoner’s pace.

They’ll be coming in after the recession has begun to heal; they’ll be coming in with our revenue back at a new all-time high; they’ll be coming back with all of our regional offices reopened and all of our programs reopened. And most importantly, they’ll be coming in with a re-energized team that exists between the regional and national offices to pursue these game changers that we’ve identified over the past five years.

So what I’ll say to them is what Ben Hook said to me: Don’t try to make any big changes for the first five years, because it’s going to take that long for you to hit your stride. Instead, invest your time in getting to know the organization from coast to coast, and border to border. Invest your time in helping the units win battles state after state. Invest your time in getting to know your peers. And plan to be here for a long time because at the start of this generation having rebuilt the national operations of the NAACP — when we picked you — the organization picked someone to be a marathon runner, and that’s what we need from you right now.

HLG: But you chose to be a sprinter instead. How come?

BTJ: Well, you know, we had been in the red for six years and the recession started a month after I did. And the regional offices were closed, and the programs were closed and the staff had been cut in half. And yet we were two months out from President Obama’s election, [so] we only had one month in some states to register people to vote. And the Tea Party began to lodge early in 2009, and it became clear that this was a time when we all had to run as fast as we possibly could to sustain.

And so, by January of 2009, my wife and daughter, who had not seen me for entire months of that fall when I was on the road, said to me at my daughter’s third birthday, “How long? How long is life going to be like this?” And I just looked at them and said, “Give me five years,” I just need five years to take the organization to the next level. And they both agreed. You never know what a 3-year-old is going to remember and not going to remember, and my daughter has reminded me every birthday since then — she’s now 7 1/2.

And when we sit down on Jan. 6 to celebrate her eighth birthday, you know, I will be very pleased that I’ve kept that promise. It’s turned out to be the biggest promise of the first half of her childhood that anybody’s made to her. And as fathers, we have a responsibility to set our daughters up to make the important men in their lives keep their promises.

HLG: Leaving these civil rights movements is a bit like a religious leader leaving the priesthood. Do you feel a little guilty?