(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 …
HLG: Does race trump class in 21st-century America, or does class trump race? And I'll give you a little context for that. [In the civil rights movement] there was almost a naive belief that somehow when de jure segregation was dismantled that we'd all plunge headfirst into the middle class. And there was a curious absence of economic analysis in part because people were afraid of the c-word, which was communism, which was associated with the movement anyway. So no one talked about the nature of capitalism or the nature of wealth or class mobility.
Today we have, since that terrible day that Dr. King was killed in 1968, the black upper middle class has quadrupled … But the percentage of black children living at or below the poverty line is still at around 30 percent, which is basically what it was when Dr. King was killed.
So we have two nations, but the two nations — there's a black and white wealth gap, but there's a black [and] black wealth gap as well. So what is the challenge facing your successor in analyzing why we've come so far, and not come so far?
BTJ: The association in the last two years has adopted from the very top to the very bottom of all 1,200 of our active units and all the way back up to the national office, game changers — goals for the first half of this century. And all of them focus on obliterating those barriers that keep people trapped in poverty … So we're taking on mass incarceration, and we're taking on housing foreclosures and we've taken on long-term joblessness and second-generation employment discrimination, so employment determined on how long you've been unemployed or your credit score or the fact that you once spent some time in jail.
But we've also taken on the AIDS — and it is breaking families, and not just spiritually as they deal with the pain of their loved one, but financially as they deal with the impact of losing a parent. We're taking on marriage equality, because the majority of children being raised by LGBT parents are children of color. And when the parents are denied the right to marriage, there's all sorts of impacts including very serious financial impacts.
And so there's a real opportunity for the next president of the NAACP to, frankly, be a marathon runner … The opportunity for the next person is to run that marathon and really take us deeper into the struggle to liberate all those millions of people of color that still feel trapped in this web that is defined by the barriers of class and the barrier of race. It is true that as the impact of racism has decreased in many significant ways, the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened …
And that is really the opportunity for the next leader of the NAACP — is to continue, yes, being the standard-bearer in the fight for racial justice, but to also be the standard-bearer in the fight for human rights in the country and civil rights in this country in this sort of big way …
HLG: Given your youth and the age of the board and its long traditions, what would you say is the greatest challenge you faced with the board over a specific issue? And your greatest victory? Your greatest defeat, and your greatest victory?
BTJ: The greatest defeat was the first strategic plan — three months later they weren't sure that they had actually agreed to it, and I had to play a tape. Fortunately we had recorded the vote, and I played the vote. At the same time, when you have to play a vote to convince someone that they agreed to a strategic plan, that strategic plan is already DOA. So at that point, I was just making a point that I had a good memory.
The biggest victory was the second strategic plan, which we went through a much longer, intentional consultative process, and it has really stuck.
HLG: And probably the greatest failure, unfortunately, in the history of the NAACP is the failure to persuade the Congress to adopt a federal anti-lynching law.
BTJ: Yes, that's exactly right. And in some ways we've actually made up for that now with the James Byrd-Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Bill, which was in many ways the realization of that dreams almost 95 years after it was first created.
But to your point, right, we just never give up. What I said to people [is] we have to identify the bold dreams of this century because it's our bold dreams that are the key to our victory. If the dream is big enough, it will sustain us through all of the losses and we'll galvanize generation after generation to do whatever they have to do to win. And that's what those game changers represent.
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?
BTJ: My family has belonged to the association for five generations. My parents raised me to be active, the way my mom's parents raised her and her grandparents raised them, and the way my great-grandfather raised them. And the generation that raised him had been born slaves. When you look across that history what you see is that our family has … been continually involved. Every generation has stepped up and called and faced up the challenge.
I've been an organizer since I was 18, when I was pulled out of the mailroom at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund by the lawyers and told that I was doing such a good job organizing people on campus that they really couldn't afford to keep in the mailroom and needed me to go up to Harlem and organize teenage moms because the city was about to close the women's inpatient program at St. Luke's Women's Hospital on W. 114 St.
And I've organized almost continually ever since, and so, having given almost 22 years of my life to organizing and rebuilding black institutions and civil rights movements, what I know is that the opportunity to serve will come again, but the opportunity to get things right as a father, and be there for my kids throughout their childhood, is now, and so I need to shift now and seize that opportunity.
Skip, the moment that I realized that I had to keep that promise to my daughter to step down after five years came last fall at a funeral of the daughter of one of the greatest leaders in the history of NAACP. And he, like many of his peers, had dropped dead from a heart attack in his 50s. And at … his daughter's funeral, they were still talking about the pain she carried from feeling like a father abandoned her long before his untimely death.
That just stuck with me the whole train ride home and throughout the fall; it would kind of wake me up at night. And I just realized that as the fifth generation of freedom fighters in my family … I paid my dues, but I also had an obligation to learn from what others had done before me. And to make sure that I didn't require my daughter and now my son to pay any price that was too large.
HLG: Final question. Ben Hook sat you down and gave you his one piece of advice about being a marathon runner. What will be the one bit of advice that you give to your successor?
BTJ: To run the marathon. To run the marathon. In the life of institutions, there often comes a moment when somebody just has to hunker down and sprint and help lift the organization, help reinvigorate the organization so it gets up to a new level of functioning. That's the role that I've played. The next person gets to inherit that new higher level of functioning of the national operation of the NAACP. And with that comes the privilege to run the marathon that Hooks ran, to run the marathon that Walter White ran, to run the marathon that Roy Wilkins ran. And we need somebody to come and run that marathon now.
HLG: Well, Ben, I think there's no question that history will remember you as a great leader in a time of transition. A person who has tremendous vision, and who actualized that vision. Congratulations, my brother, and thanks for the generous amount of time you've given us on The Root.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.