Jealous, Benjamin

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Benjamin Jealous


Civil rights leader

When Benjamin Jealous accepted the job of president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in May of 2008, he knew that he would have a tough road ahead of him. Even before he took office in September, some members of the NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization, were critical of him, arguing that he was too young—just thirty-five years old at the time of his selection, the youngest president in NAACP history—and too inexperienced. Others, however, heralded Jealous as a bright leader who could breathe new life into the organization, which has struggled to redefine its mission and to keep pace with financial pressures in the face of declining membership. Jealous, for his part, has emphasized his commitment to the NAACP's core civil rights and social justice concerns, but all the while signaling his intention to move the organization into the twenty-first century to connect with the younger generation.

Benjamin Todd Jealous was born on January 18, 1973, in Pacific Grove, California. His parents, Fred Jealous, a counselor, and Ann Todd Jealous, a marriage and family therapist, both became involved in the civil rights movement during the 1950s, and they imparted their values and activism to their son. At age seven Benjamin Jealous declared that he planned to become a civil rights lawyer, and at age fourteen he participated in his first voter registration drive.

Jealous attended the York School in Monterey, California. During that time he spent a semester in Washington, DC, as a page for Democratic congressman Leon Panetta, and later served as an intern to Representative Sam Farr. After graduating from high school, Jealous took a job with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as a community organizer in Harlem in New York City, where he led the neighborhood's residents and local churches in a campaign against the elimination of obstetrical services at St. Luke's Women's Hospital.

At age twenty-one Jealous went to Mississippi, where he worked as a field organizer on a campaign to halt the state's plan to close two of its three historically back universities. Soon he began writing for the Jackson Advocate, Mississippi's oldest black newspaper. His investigative reporting there uncovered corruption among high-ranking officials at the state penitentiary in Parchman, and he provided evidence to acquit a black farmer who had been wrongfully charged with arson. In 1993 Jealous became managing editor of the Advocate.

Jealous completed his undergraduate degree in political science at Columbia University in 1996. The following year he was named a Rhodes scholar and traveled to Oxford University, where he earned a master's degree in comparative social research. Upon his return to the United States, he took a position as executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade association representing more than two hundred black community newspapers. During his tenure he launched an initiative that doubled the number of newspapers publishing online and helped reorganize the news service.

From 2002 to 2005 Jealous served as director of the U.S. Human Rights Program at Amnesty International, an organization dedicated to social justice worldwide. He led the organization's campaigns to pass federal legislation against prison rape, focus attention on racial profiling, and expose the sentencing of children to life in prison. Subsequently, Jealous became president of the Rosenberg Foundation, a private institution based in San Francisco that advocates on behalf of California's immigrant population and working families.

Jealous was one of three candidates under consideration for the presidency of the NAACP in early 2008. The short list also included the Reverend Frederick D. Haynes III, senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, and Alvin Brown, a former White House official then working on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Jealous, the youngest of the three, lacked the traditional credentials for the job—all but one of the organization's sixteen previous leaders had been politicians or ministers. Jealous's résumé included media skills, technological savvy, and a history of grassroots activism.

By the time the NAACP's annual convention began on May 17, the search committee had narrowed the choices down to one. Jealous was the sole candidate presented to the organization's sixty-four-member board of directors, which approved his appointment by a vote of thirty-four to twenty-one. As the NAACP's seventeenth leader, he was the youngest in the organization's nearly hundred-year history.

The selection process, however, proved contentious, revealing a generational divide within the organization and philosophical differences over the NAACP's mission and direction. Some longtime members opposed the choice of Jealous, whom they viewed as inexperienced and uninspiring in leadership ability. Other members interpreted his appointment as a signal that the NAACP was poised to go in a new direction, to make itself relevant to a generation facing different forms of racial injustice than their parents did.

"It was time for the NAACP to take this step," Mary Frances Berry, who sat on the fifteen-member search committee, told the Chronicle of Philanthropy. "There was no need to have another traditional civil-rights leader just to have another traditional civil-rights leader. What Jealous brought was youth, energy, creativity, and vision. He can connect across the generational divide, and he understands the technological changes that have taken place."

At a Glance …

Born Benjamin Todd Jealous on January 18, 1973, in Pacific Grove, CA; son of Fred and Ann Todd Jealous; married Lia Beth Epperson (a constitutional law professor and former civil rights attorney), July 27, 2002; children: Morgan. Education: Columbia University, BA, political science, 1996; Oxford University (Rhodes scholar), MS, comparative social research, 1998.

Career: Jackson Advocate, managing editor, 1993-95; National Newspaper Publishers Association, executive director, 1999-2002; Amnesty International, director of U.S. Human Rights Program, 2002-05; Rosenberg Foundation, president, 2005-08; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, president, 2008—.

Memberships: Asia Society; Association of Black Foundation Executives; California Council for the Humanities; Northern California Grantmakers; PowerPAC.

Awards: Rhodes Scholarship, 1997; Special Achievement Award, National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty; Exceptional Communicator Award, New California Media; Charles Tisdale Award, Jackson Advocate; Emerging Leader Award, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation; "30 Leaders of the Future," Ebony magazine, 2001.

Addresses: Office—c/o National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 4805 Mount Hope Dr., Baltimore, MD 21215-3206.

In an interview with the Associated Press, quoted in the Washington Post, Jealous expressed his excitement about the board's choice: "I think that it's a real affirmation that this organization is willing to invest in the future, to invest in the ideas and the leadership of the generation that is currently raising black children in this country."

Jealous took the reins of the NAACP at a challenging time. He succeeded Bruce S. Gordon, who had resigned in March of 2007 after only nineteen months on the job, citing irreconcilable differences with the board of directors. A few months later the organization disclosed a budget shortfall of $1 million, necessitating a 40 percent reduction in its workforce and the closing of seven regional offices. Adding to its woes, the organization faced declining membership and philanthropic contributions.

As the NAACP approached its centennial, Jealous began to forge his agenda for the organization. For him, the most pressing issues that the NAACP needed to address, in addition to its management challenges, included employment discrimination, inner-city violence, and segregation in schools. He also cited the nation's record-high incarceration rate, especially among African Americans, as cause for concern.

For his accomplishments, Jealous has received numerous awards. In 2001 he was named to Ebony magazine's list of "30 Leaders of the Future." He has also received the Special Achievement Award of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and the Emerging Leader Award of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.



Baltimore Sun, July 18, 2008.

Chronicle of Philanthropy, May 29, 2008.

San Francisco Chronicle, May 27, 2008.

Washington Post, May 18, 2008, p. A06.


"Benjamin Todd Jealous," NAACP, (accessed July 23, 2008).

—Deborah A. Ring