This February the NAACP marked its 100th anniversary. The venerable organization was on the front lines of some of the most important human-rights battles of the 20th century. But "venerable" is often a polite word for "passé." During the past several years, there have been times when even supporters have questioned the NAACP's role in the modern world.
The organization barely limped through the early 1990s after the board dismissed CEO Ben Chavis for improperly using NAACP funds to settle a sexual-harassment suit. Former congressman Kweisi Mfume nursed the NAACP back to financial health. Bruce Gordon was supposed to reenergize it. But instead of reinvigorating the association, it wore him down: the former Verizon executive resigned in 2007, less than two years into the job.
Benjamin Jealous, 36, named to the top job last May, is the youngest NAACP CEO ever. And he has taken over at a time when some Americans question the need for not just the NAACP but for all the civil-rights groups that came of age when blacks were denied the vote, lynching was commonplace and segregation was the proud cause of the South. This, of course, is a new day, with an African-American president who embodies the dream of the civil-rights generation (even if he may not share its preoccupations). "We're in completely new territory," Jealous told me recently.
With Jealous, the NAACP is also in completely new territory. He is the first post–baby boomer to head the association, and hopes his more activist bent will appeal to a much-needed new generation of supporters. Like Barack Obama, Jealous is an Ivy League graduate who began his career in community organizing. He also is biracial. Jealous's father, Fred, hailed from a prominent New England family that traced back its American roots to before the Revolution. Fred's decision to marry a black woman created a family scandal. "My father was disowned," says Jealous.
His parents, who met as graduate students at Antioch University, were steeped in the social movements of the times: "Mom desegregated her high school [in Baltimore] at age 14 … and she would spend her summers desegregating lunch counters in southern Virginia." His father was arrested at an antisegregation sit-in. "He was the only white guy in jail with a bunch of black activists," says Jealous. "As a child, he would take me to protests. He registered me as a conscientious objector at age 5."
Jealous grew up in Monterey, Calif., and came east to Columbia University. The draw was Jack Greenberg, then the undergraduate dean. A former head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Greenberg had argued numerous cases before the Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education. Jealous worshiped Greenberg, who arranged a work-study job for him at the NAACP-LDF. Jealous planned to become a lawyer and follow in Greenberg's footsteps. "And then Jack kicked me out of college for protests," recalls Jealous.
Jealous was among those students who occupied university property in 1992 in opposition to a proposal to turn the Audubon Ballroom (where Malcolm X was assassinated) into a biomedical facility. After being kicked out, Jealous worked in Mississippi as a community organizer for the NAACP, fighting a state plan to close two historically black colleges. He also worked as a journalist, investigating corruption at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman for the black-owned Jackson Advocate.
He forgot about becoming a lawyer—litigating cases took a lot of time, sometimes decades. But, says Jealous, "in a two-year period of being a journalist in Mississippi, I saved an inmate's life, got a black farmer exonerated and had a couple of other smaller successes … That was a pace I could work with."
He returned to Columbia with focus and a renewed sense of mission; he also won a Rhodes scholarship ("one of the few achievements you could have as a young black man that would force the most privileged white man to second-guess himself"). After graduating from Columbia and earning his master's degree at Oxford, Jealous worked for the National Newspaper Publishers Association and Amnesty International before being named president of the California-based Rosenberg Foundation, which focuses largely on civil-rights work. That's where he was when the NAACP came calling.
He hopes to make the association matter in a way that it has not for a long time: as an irresistible voice for progressive change. "Our first victory in this country was ending lynch-mob justice," he points out. "We never succeeded in passing the [anti-lynching] law; we simply shamed the country into consensus." He hopes the NAACP can be successful in building a new national consensus on issues ranging from racial profiling to education reform to reversing "the mass incarceration of black people in this country." His more visible, more aggressive NAACP will spawn a new mass movement, mobilizing support for wider health-care access and quality jobs. The new NAACP also will monitor the president and "hold him accountable to … his own ambitions." Those are big dreams for an organization that many have long thought of as irrelevant. But then, as President Obama himself has shown, audacity—coupled with focus and passion—can lead to interesting things.