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. ''
Curry, who has been reporting on the incident himself, said on Saturday afternoon during a break at the National Urban League convention in Washington, D.C., that "the NAACP Board of Directors is scrambling to see how to recover'' from Sherrodgate.
"He made the statement without even checking with local chapter president of the NAACP,'' Curry said of Jealous. ''That should have been his first call.''
He said that Jealous has another year on his three-year contract, and questioned whether it would be renewed. "There is a lot of discontent with him on the board," Curry said. "Members feel he has embarrassed the NAACP, and they are trying to see that it doesn't happen again.''
Hilary Shelton, who is director of the NAACP's Washington bureau and senior vice president for advocacy and policy, told The Root that technology was the real culprit in the Sherrod mishap, not communications or leadership. (Jealous declined our request to be interviewed for this article.) "I'm not convinced there was a communications problem," he said. "We ended up not doing the protocol that would have detected such a high-tech form of deception. It's something we moved to deploy right away upon realizing we'd been so maliciously deceived.
"If someone raises an issue of concern that speaks to the mission and goals of the NAACP, we need to respond, especially since it was an NAACP unit," Shelton told The Root. "We thought we had a situation where someone had used the NAACP to espouse discriminatory practices under the guise of the federal government. The problem was when it was evaluated, we weren't able to see it was indeed bogus, because it was edited in such a high-tech fashion. It was intended to be deceptive. Even the guy who produced it said he did it to deceive the NAACP in an attempt to get back at us for asking the Tea Party to repudiate racist elements."
Among those issues has been fighting racism in the criminal justice system and the disproportionate incarceration of black men, causes that Jealous also championed prior to taking up the mantle of leading the NAACP. "[Jealous] mounted a widespread campaign with Amnesty [International USA] to save the life of a wrongly convicted man, Troy Davis,'' Shelton wrote The Root in advance of his interview with us. Davis has been on death row in Georgia since 1991 for the murder of a police officer.
"The campaign spurred the calls for a new evidentiary hearing, ultimately decided by the Supreme Court in a rare ruling that had not been granted in over 50 years," wrote Shelton. "There was no physical evidence and following the conviction of the former sports coach, seven of the nine witnesses recanted.'' It is unclear what will happen now that the hearing is over, since the judge has yet to rule on it.
Among the other accomplishments that Shelton cited in writing were the recent relaunch of the NAACP's Web site; a budget that is "in the black two years in a row for the first time in over 5 years"; the documenting and publicizing of minority contractors being locked out of opportunities for work in the Gulf oil spill cleanup by BP; and a grass-roots campaign to fight conservative changes in Texas school textbooks that included testifying before school board members (who still voted in favor of changing the textbooks). And of course there's the upcoming "One Nation, One Dream" in October in Washington, D.C., that is being planned as a unifying, progressive answer to the Tea Party movement.
Perhaps when the smoke clears from the Sherrod debacle and the blowback from his Tea Party remarks subsides, people will recognize how many irons Jealous does have in the fire right now. And maybe he'll focus less on the 24-hour news cycle as he does his job.
Focusing on the fundamentals is something all black leaders need to do more of right now, said Curry. "I have been in journalism for 40 years, and I have never seen our collection of black leadership in this bad a condition, even when [Dr. Martin Luther] King and [NAACP Executive Secretary] Roy Wilkins were fighting. The focus should not be on the Tea Party. The focus should be on unemployment, the dropout rate, public housing and the wealth gap. There is no shortage of issues. The Tea Party is the last thing we need to be wasting our time on.''
This summer dealt a steep learning curve to Jealous, but "I think he learned that it's not necessary to be in the press to be an effective leader,'' said New York University visiting law professor Derrick Bell, author of Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. Bell was counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund during the 1960s, although he is not currently close with Jealous or the NAACP.
"A lot of things he does aren't newsworthy, such as fighting for education and against long prison sentences," said Bell in an interview with The Root. "He tried to do more out-front stuff by going after the Tea Party, but they struck back. Hopefully it won't happen again.''
Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.
This article was updated on August 7, 2010 to reflect the prior working relationship between Benjamin Jealous and George Curry.