NAACP Names New President Following last year's abrupt resignation of former president Bruce Gordon, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has chosen 35-year-old Ben Jealous to lead the organization. For more, Farai Chideya speaks with News & Notes contributor, Mary Frances Berry.
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NAACP Names New President

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NAACP Names New President

NAACP Names New President

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From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. The search is over. On Saturday, the NAACP chose a new president and CEO. His name is Benjamin Todd Jealous, and he's only 35 years old, a civil rights leader who is not part of the civil rights generation. In fact, he'll be the youngest leader ever of the 99-year-old civil rights organization. Jealous was formerly the director of the U.S. Human Rights Program at Amnesty International. He also ran the National Newspaper Publisher's Association. And for more, we have regular News & Notes contributor Mary Frances Berry. She's a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, the former chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and a member of the NAACP's Search Committee. Hey, Mary.

Dr. MARY FRANCES BERRY (Professor of History, University of Pennsylvania): Hello, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So the NAACP board took an eight-hour closed-door session to make its choice. So what do you think were some of the pros and cons that were debated in choosing Ben Jealous?

Dr. BERRY: Well, Ben Jealous is of course young, and he has good experience for a man that age. But you can't help being young. And to some people, and I think that's right, sometimes it's very risky when you get someone who has less experience than some other people who may be candidates. So that's something you debate. The other thing is to debate whether he meets the needs of the organization at this particular time. The NAACP needs money, it needs members, it needs vision, it needs to work with other organizations, especially some of the younger people who are running organizations and who do things like blogging and using the internet and all kinds of things that are new in terms of technology. So they had to debate whether to go with somebody who fit the old mold, or partly fit it, or to take a risk on a guy who's young, exciting, energetic, has good experience, well educated, vision, and is committed to civil rights.

CHIDEYA: Well, you know, you just ticked off a lot of things. Money, vision, internet strategy. You know, that's a lot to tackle. Let's tackle vision first. You know, the NAACP's last president, Bruce Gordon, only lasted 19 months in office. And when we spoke with the former, well with the current, chair of the board of the NAACP, he said - Julian Bond said that he wanted to keep the organization civil rights-focused. You know, Bruce Gordon really wanted to focus on black economics. So what do you think about that divide? What is the vision that you want to see the NAACP develop and/or what do you think that Ben Jealous wants to do?

Dr. BERRY: Well, Ben Jealous, insofar as I was able to tell on the Search Committee, understands that economic opportunity is connected to all other aspects of civil rights in general, that they're not really too separate. There's a nexus between race and class, and that these things both need to be worked on. And he understands that, so he wouldn't be in the business of trying to separate the two, or argue about whether one was more important than the other. He also understands that the NAACP is concerned about trying to help the people who have been more or less behind in the African-American community. That is, if you have to make a choice in terms of program, try to help those who have already made it, even though they may suffer discrimination and you can work on that. He would like to give a hand to those who still are the poor, those who are in communities that are devastated both by violence, by lack of jobs, drugs and all the things that we know. And I think he understands all that.

CHIDEYA: Now, money. That's a big one. It's been tight for the NAACP. Do you think that he has the fundraising chops that the organization needs?

Dr. BERRY: Well, he persuaded us on the Search Committee that he has both the connections, the commitment, the knowledge of people who want to be donors to the kind of vision that he has and that the NAACP has going forward, and that he understands the financial challenge. So one of the big specifications that we were looking for is somebody who was interested in fundraising, had a track record, understood it, and knew how to do it. And he has been running a small foundation and he has connections with people who are in the fundraising circles. So we think he can meet that need too. And it's also connected to membership. Increasing membership, which is connected to vision, that's why I ticked off all those things at the same time, is also connected to whether you can raise money or not.

CHIDEYA: The membership, from what I understand, has a pretty high average age. Do you think he'll bring in younger people?

Dr. BERRY: Absolutely. I think that he will appeal to - there are younger people in the NAACP, though not as many. And I think he will help to revitalize the youth chapters. I think he will work with other young people in other organizations. I think that he will be a standout in that regard.

CHIDEYA: What about internet strategy? What do you see ahead for the NAACP? I mean, what would you like to see?

Dr. BERRY: What I would like to see is to see the NAACP maximize the use of the new technologies and work with other organizations that are already there. We saw a lot of it around the Jenna discussion and so on. And the radio host, the internet people over the internet in the other organizations that are around the country now. Many of them are in California, people that Ben Jealous already knows, to start consciously working with them. Because one of the big problems that the NAACP has is that on the ground, lobbying in Washington, trying to get something done on the ground.

It's the established people in the established organization, the old NAACP organization, and others in the leadership conference on civil rights at Wade Henderson, who do the lobbying. They also are not as connected as they should be to the people who are out there at the grassroots who operate through the internet. I think that Ben Jealous will make those connections that make it all work.

CHIDEYA: What about the issue of class? You mentioned it, but the black community is so different than it was a couple of generations ago, when you really did, you know, because of the color line, have wealthy black people living at least fairly close to poor black folks. And now we've really split up. You have neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, and then, you know, you have some mixing but not very much. How can the NAACP get people of means involved in issues that affect people who are primarily poor?

Dr. BERRY: Good question. As a matter of fact, black people do give - have a record of charitable giving to the poor that's better than in some other communities. But what really needs to happen is to have more connection in terms of relating to and being with and being around and helping and feeling committed to, on a personal basis, what some people call putting a body on the young people who need somebody there with them and involved in what they're doing in these communities. And so I hope that what Ben will do, since he knows how to do that and he does it himself, that he will be able to help the branches figure out a way that they can, in fact, take under their wing people in some of the communities that are left behind and to work with them.

CHIDEYA: Of course, we don't live in an all-black world. And in a lot of places, you find black people, like south L.A., you know, in neighborhoods and sometimes in conflict with their neighbors of other races.

Dr. BERRY: Right.

CHIDEYA: In south L.A., it's black-Latino. Do you think that the NAACP will or should reach out to particularly other people of color to try to form coalitions?

Dr. BERRY: Well that's been something that Julian Bond has been emphasizing throughout his chairmanship. I'm not sure the various precedents, the CEOs understood it. But it's the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And Du Bois said at the beginning of the century that it was not jut black people, but black, brown, yellow all the colored races that had to work together. So I think that - and Jealous comes from a community and background where he is very much aware of that. I think the NAACP needs to do it, whatever the tensions are, whatever the issues are, whether it's housing or whose turf is available to whom, or immigration or whatever it is, jobs. I think the NAACP has to that, and I think Ben will do that.

CHIDEYA: Now, when it comes to civil rights, I talked to a young activist who is very much within the black community. His entire focus is on young black men and yet he hates the term civil rights. He thinks civil rights, the term, has undermined civil rights, the movement, because it's outdated, in his opinion. What do you think on that score?

Dr. BERRY: Well, some people say that we should say opportunity instead of civil rights, that we should say - somebody told me other day maybe we should say banana every time instead of saying civil rights, that it has certain connotations that are out there. It's not outdated because the laws under which we operate, anti-discrimination law is called civil rights law and that's what the laws are called. So I guess until we re-labeled all of them and call them something else and they apply not just to black people but to other people who are discriminated against. So I think saying civil rights is not the problem. It's not the label that is the problem. The problem is, what does civil rights mean, how do you encompass opportunity for all and how do you lift people up who are behind. But if folks want to call it in the vernacular or something else, they can do that, but that's not what the laws are called.

CHIDEYA: Now I mentioned the NAACP board chair Julian Bond. He and Bruce Gordon, the former president, had their moments, didn't really see eye to eye. Do you think that the board is in sync with Jealous and that there will be a collaboration that lasts?

Dr. BERRY: Well, I think that having an eight-hour meeting and then coming out of it supporting him, which means that all the issues were debated - we spent hours in the search committee, countless hours, I can't even remember how many there were so many talking to people and listening to people, interviewing and mulling over this. So I think there probably is enough consensus. The board is very tough to work with because it's a big board and there are a lot of people who have been there a long time and who have track records of their own. But I think that having reached this conclusion, that they will support Jealous. And that he now understands, if he didn't before, what the dynamics are in the board. And I think he has a kind the kind of sensitivity and the kind of awareness and the commitment and the vibrancy of eagerness of youth and some maturity and he respects people who are more mature and older than he is and counsels with them. So I think it will work out.

CHIDEYA: On that note, Mary, great to talk to you.

Dr. BERRY: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Mary Frances Berry is a regular News & Notes contributor. She was on the search committee for the NAACP president. She's also a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and a former chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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