Does the NAACP Have a Leadership Problem?

Its handling of Shirley Sherrod and the Tea Party has led some in the media to question whether its young president, Benjamin Jealous, is up to the job. But is the criticism fair?

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Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and chief executive officer of the NAACP, strode into the media spotlight last month when he called on the Tea Party to "repudiate the racist element and activities within'' its ranks.

He immediately became the focus of attacks from the right and emerged as a visible advocate for racial justice, following the announcement at the organization's convention in Kansas City, Mo. The time was ripe. For about two years, Jealous, 37, has been working to earn his stripes as leader of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization.

Among his favorite causes has been working with other groups to repeal mandatory sentencing guidelines for first-time offenders for possession of crack cocaine, which disproportionately affects African Americans. This week the effort received a victory when Congress approved a measure to reduce sentencing disparities for possession of powder and crack cocaine. He has also focused on defending blacks from racially charged attacks in the public sphere, most recently from elements of the Tea Party.

But in July he stepped on the third rail. Without gathering all the facts, he spoke out against USDA employee Shirley Sherrod, based on a deceptively edited video of one of her speeches at an NAACP event. Released by a right-wing blogger, the video appeared to show Sherrod making biased remarks about her dealings with a white farmer, leading to her forced resignation by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Jealous retracted the NAACP's denouncement when he learned of a more complete video showing that Sherrod's story was one of racial reconciliation. Still, the misstep rankled some in the African-American community and blogosphere because the NAACP is supposed to be a defender of blacks and women, not the opposite -- especially in today's tense racial climate.

Among those upset by it were George Curry, the former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine who previously worked with Jealous at the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Curry wrote in a column for Black Voice News that Jealous essentially served as a "drum major'' in the attacks against Sherrod before doing enough research.

"The NAACP was duped by Fox News and the Tea Party?'' Curry wrote. "That's a sad commentary on the NAACP and the state of black leadership. How could the nation's oldest civil rights organization allow itself to be 'snookered' by its avowed enemies? And if the president of the NAACP is that gullible, what else [has] he been snookered on?''

Writer Amy Alexander, who worked for the NAACP briefly in 2009, also wrote a scathing blog post that received widespread attention. She attacked the young president's leadership abilities and complained of dysfunction within the organization, including the communications team for which she had worked.

Is there a fire behind the gathering smoke?

Thurston added that Jealous' leadership could benefit from building closer relationships with NAACP units in various cities and states. "They are the arms and legs of the NAACP, and they do not have this relationship with the local chapters,'' Thurston said, based on conversations he has had with some unit heads. "Again, it gets back to communications, which is not tight enough between local and national chapters. ''