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NAACP selects its leader

May 18, 2008|Kelly Brewington | Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — A 35-year-old human rights activist on Saturday was chosen to become the NAACP's new president and chief executive.

Benjamin Todd Jealous, a graduate of Columbia University and a Rhodes scholar, will become the youngest leader in the 99-year history of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

"I'm excited to take the helm of the NAACP," he said. "I believe in the urgent need for strong civil rights institutions and strong black institutions in general."

The NAACP's 64-member board, however, was not united in its selection of Jealous. The vote, taken after an arduous eight-hour closed-door meeting that ended close to 3 a.m., came as some members complained that they were being shut out of the selection process.

Jealous received key support from NAACP board Chairman Julian Bond. During the meeting, Jealous made a lengthy presentation to board members, after which each member was permitted to ask him a question. That portion of the meeting lasted three hours, and from time to time, applause could be heard within the closed meeting room.

When Jealous emerged from the conference room, he said the interaction with board members had gone well.

Jealous has spent the last six years in leadership positions with advocacy roles, including three years as director of Amnesty International USA's Domestic Human Rights Program and most recently as president of the San Francisco-based Rosenberg Foundation, which supports social justice organizations. Before that, he spent three years as executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Assn., an organization of 200 black-owned community newspapers.

Jealous expressed an admiration for the NAACP, an organization he said his family has supported for five generations.

"I've spent my entire life in this movement," he said in an interview. "I was raised to believe that there is no greater calling than to serve your people in the cause of justice. That is how I have spent my life. I have no higher ambitions."

Although he grew up in Pacific Grove, Calif., Jealous spent summers at his grandparents' home in Baltimore's Ashburton neighborhood, where his family was active in the Baltimore NAACP. Jealous' mother, who is black, was among the first students to desegregate Western High School here in 1955, he said. His father, who is white, took part in sit-ins to desegregate Baltimore lunch counters, Jealous said.

Jealous takes the helm at the NAACP during a crucial time: The organization has struggled to increase membership, raise money and battle critics who question whether the civil rights group can remain relevant.

Jealous said he would make financial stability a priority for the Baltimore-based organization and planned to use his personal relationships with top foundations in the nation to raise funds. He also said he would focus on supporting the NAACP's nearly 2,000 local units and on using technology more effectively to "pull people into this movement."

He pointed to his youth as an asset in recruiting new members and said he thought he could work to create consensus among the board's various factions.

The NAACP's last president and CEO, Bruce S. Gordon, who led for 19 months, resigned abruptly in March 2007 following clashes with the board.

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