Barack Obama and the Future of the Civil Rights Movement

Benjamin Jealous, the new head of the NAACP, talks about the future of his organization.

''Obama's nomination is a moment that has been made possible by decades of work by this organization.''

''Obama's nomination is a moment that has been made possible by decades of work by this organization.''


If there is a word to describe the challenge facing Benjamin Jealous, it may be Obama-esque. When he took over as president of the NAACP last week, Jealous, 35, became not just the youngest person ever to lead the organization; he also represented a clean break with its past. Struggling for relevancy after years of leadership by ministers and civil rights veterans, the group has charged Jealous, a little-known former newspaper executive, community organizer, and online fundraising whiz, with finding a way forward. Jealous talked with U.S. News about the new fight for civil rights—and how black politics would change under a black president. Excerpts:

Some people have said your selection is a way to say, "This isn't your father's NAACP."

One of the things I'm known for in the black press is leading it online. My job is to bring new energy and new technologies [to the] strength of the existing organization. My focus is on making sure that as [young people] move into active adulthood that they stay involved with the organization, and we're going to be able to do that by building our presence online. How do you respond to grumblingin the older black community aboutyour inexperience?

This year marks the beginning of my third decade running voter registration drives. I led my first national civil rights organization when I was 26. This is the movement in which I've been raised, and I've been blessed by older and younger people forming my leadership for a long time. Why are so many relatively young black men assuming major leadership roles at the same time?

Black leaders of my generation grew up knowing that Medgar Evers was dead by 37 and both Dr. King and Malcolm X were dead by 39. We were taught—we were trained—to pursue the best education we could possibly attain, to come back and give our service to the community, and to lead not when we reached the front of the line, but when called. Now that a black man has earned the presidential nomination of a major party, do you think the NAACP is still relevant?

We're not the National Association for the Advancement of a Colored Per son. At the end of the day, our success is defined less by the number of glass ceilings we've broken than by the condition of the grass roots. It's easier for a white man with a criminal record to find a job than for a black man without a criminal record. As long as regular folks are suffering and racism is a problem, there will be a need for the NAACP. But doesn't Obama's nomination show a lot of progress has been made?

Obama's nomination is a moment that has been made possible by decades of work by this organization...breaking down barriers so black folks could run for mayor, could run for governor, could run for city councils. Voters [are getting] used to the notion that people who have brown skin or curly hair can lead them. So this is a great moment. If Obama wins in November, what will it mean for black politics?

At the end of the day, a president is a president, and no matter how good their heart is, they're not going to be able to do great things unless it's clear to the country that they must do great things. Our mission is to create the mandate for great change. How will you do that?

The secret to [the NAACP's success] has been to pick big goals and to exert discipline in going after those goals. Job 1 for the long term is investing in stoking the outrage in this country—the righteous, rightful outrage for the massive mistreatment of young people, for the failure to educate young people, for the failure to train and to educate adults who were failed as young people. Our job is to tap into that sense of injustice, and then to focus that energy on policy solutions that make the country better for all of us . What did you make of the catty remarks at the Republican convention about community organizing?

I would say that being a community organizer is a lot like being a small-town mayor; it just involves a lot more accountability. Why do you think as the leader of a group like the NAACP that you are more accountable?