Farai Chideya for The Takeaway: This week the NAACP kicked off a six-day convention celebrating its 100th anniversary. Founded a century ago, the civil rights organization could be considered an arcane institution with aging members and old ideas. But even though Barack Obama has become our first African American president, the NAACP sees its work as far from finished. Who better to lead the organization in the 21st century than someone in his 30s? We’re talking about Benjamin Todd Jealous. Last year, at the age of 35, he became the organization’s youngest president and he joins us now to discuss his vision for the NAACP and how he’s going to take on the challenges of race relations and equality. Welcome, Ben. How are you?
Ben Jealous: I’m doing well. How are you?
Farai Chideya: I’m great. Now, does it ruffle your feathers when we use the word “arcane?” Do you think of this organization as arcane? Or perhaps having teetered on the brink?
Ben Jealous: I thought perhaps you were talking about the U.S. Senate. [Laughter.] The truth is that throughout the history of this country the people who lead in politics and basic community activism tend to come from those near or beyond retirement age and those near or below college age. And that’s very much where the heart of the membership of this organization tends to be. These are two generations of people who have two things in common. On the one hand, they’re very eager to see the world change. One is about to leave and wants to define their legacy. So my focus as far as getting people in their late 20s, in their 30s, in their 40s back engaged with this organization is to really do two things. One is to make it plain about the sorts of issues we face right now — failing schools, short supply of jobs and even shorter supply of good jobs, real crisis in our prison system, in our basic system of justice in this country — and then the next is to make it easy for people to get involved.
John Hockenberry: But, Ben Jealous, you’ve got Eric Holder the Attorney General there at the NAACP convention. You’ve got the President of the United States at the convention. How do you maintain the credibility of the NAACP and maintain its independence from the powers that be, the actual institutions of power, when there must be such a temptation to do a full embrace here?
Ben Jealous: We’re a big tent. People come to the big tent to speak to constituents from across the country and to people who they know are really engaged in the fight for civil rights. You’ve got a lot of people who compared this past president to Lincoln, and I’ve made it very clear that if he wants to play Lincoln I’m happy to play Frederick Douglass. The reality, then as now, is when they’re right they’re right and we support them and push them, and when they’re wrong, well, we’ve got to let them know that too.
Farai Chideya: Now, flash back in your mind’s eye or your past life to what it must’ve been like in 1909 when the NAACP was founded. Perhaps tell me a story that you’ve heard about the early days of the NAACP.
Ben Jealous: The most important thing, I think, was back in 1909 when this small group of dreamers got together in an apartment in lower Manhattan and decided in that apartment that they would end the appalling practice of lynch-mob justice because there had been a race riot in Springfield, Illinois, the hometown of President Lincoln. Forty black families had been pushed out of town. Black men had had their throats slit and then were hung on trees, not hung to kill them but to put them on display. It’s that they were willing to dream really big urgently needed, bold dreams, to then think as organizers and outline the steps that would need to happen to win, and then to pursue those dreams for decades. Our first convention happened just a few months thereafter. We were founded on the birthday of President Lincoln, February 12, 1909, when he would’ve been 100 had he been able to live. But just a few months later they brought in dozens of progressives from around the country, primarily black church leaders, who were able to take this movement back into the corners of the country that needed the fight against lynch-mob justice the most. That formula — dream bold dreams, break them down into achievable steps, practice discipline and pursue them until you win — has been our strategy since. It’s our secret for success.
Farai Chideya: Let me just jump in and ask a very specific question. Now we are seeing a fairly staggering rise in black unemployment. It’s at 13.6 percent now, compared to 8.2 percent for whites. There’s always a huge gap. But in the age of Obama, which is also the age of recession, black folks are not faring well. And every month the black unemployment rate goes up, and let me just sharpen the point by saying there seems to have been some disagreement between former president Bruce Gordon and between the chairman Julian Bond into how much economics factor into what the NAACP should do. So how big of an issue is getting black people jobs to you?
Ben Jealous: We’re actually in firm agreement that jobs are a big part of the agenda. We’re focused not just on full employment, if you will, but also on job quality. Let’s not forget that slavery was a full employment economy. So job quality counts for a lot. There’s a lot of children in this country who are neglected everyday not because their parents don’t have a job, but because they have to have too many jobs. While we fight to increase jobs, while we work to increase the green job legislation and related climate change bills through Congress, we also push to improve job quality. That’s why the Employee Free Choice Act is so important. We’ve got to keep focused on that. We can’t be lulled into a conversation that is only about how many black people have jobs, we also have to ask the question, “And how good are those jobs? Can you support a family on that job?”
Farai Chideya: What do you want President Obama to say when he addresses the membership of the NAACP? What will you be listening for that’s critical to you?
Ben Jealous: We want some acknowledgment of our role in ensuring that this day could come when a black man could get on Air Force One. We also want to hear acknowledgment that this country has a long way to go. When you have a day like a few days ago when you see photos of the President getting onto Air Force One, on the other hand you see photos of black children who can’t get into a swimming pool, it’s shocking. It shows that while many people can surmount the barriers of our society, there still are barriers for many of us and we have to stay focused on those. We also want to hear acknowledgment, quite frankly, of the parts of the social contract that still need to be extended, for example the fight to end the health care crisis in this country, the fight to ensure that all kids can go to good schools, and the fight to ensure that this period of mass incarceration of black people will be brought to an end by sane policy.
Farai Chideya: That’s 36-year-old Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP.