Jealous to become NAACP’s new president, CEO

Graduate of Columbia University and Rhodes Scholar will be youngest national leader in organization’s history

| Sun reporter

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

“I’m excited to take the helm of the NAACP,” he said early yesterday. “I believe in the urgent need for strong civil rights institutions and strong black institutions in general.”

But the NAACP’s 64-member board was not united in its selection of Jealous. The vote, which came after an arduous eight-hour closed-door meeting that ended close to 3 a.m. at the Westin Baltimore International Airport hotel, came as some members complained they were shut out of the selection process.

Jealous, however, received key support from NAACP board Chairman Julian Bond.

During the meeting, Jealous gave 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, loud applause could be heard outside the closed meeting room. When Jealous emerged from the conference room, he said the interaction with board members “went really well. Fabulous.”

“When you have 64 people, you will always have many opinions,” he said. “But judging from the applause and the questions, I think most people felt very good about me.”

Jealous has spent the last six years in leadership positions with advocacy roles, including three years as director of Amnesty International’s U.S. 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 Association, an organization of 200 black-owned community newspapers.

In an interview with The Sun, Jealous expressed an admiration of the NAACP, an organization he said his family has supported for five generations.

“I’ve spent my entire life in this movement,” he said. “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 in 1955, he said. His father, who is white, took part in sit-ins to desegregate Baltimore lunch counters, Jealous said.

He takes the helm at the NAACP during a critical time in its nearly 100-year history. The organization has struggled to increase membership, raise money and battle critics who question if the organization can remain relevant in the post-civil rights era.

Jealous said he will make financial stability a priority for the organization and plans to use his personal relationships with top foundations around the country to build fund-raising. He said he will also focus on supporting the NAACP’s nearly 2,000 local units across the country and on using technology more effectively to “pull people into this movement.”

He points to his youth as an asset in recruiting new members and said he thinks he can work to create consensus among the board’s various factions.

The most recent president and CEO, Bruce S. Gordon, resigned abruptly in March 2007, following clashes with the board. He had spent 19 months at the helm.

Gordon said he and the board could not come to an agreement on a vision for the organization. His departure surprised and frustrated board members, who had unanimously selected the former Verizon executive with great fanfare, noting his long corporate resume should boost fundraising.

Several months after Gordon’s departure, the organization revealed significant financial troubles, forcing leadership to cut the staff at the NAACP’s Baltimore headquarters by about 40 percent through attrition and layoffs. Leaders also announced the temporary closing of seven regional offices, a move that upset local chapter officers, who complained that without the regional offices, members were losing a vital conduit to the national office. The financial problems derailed a plan to move the organization’s headquarters from northwest Baltimore to Washington D.C.

Earlier this year, Bond said a huge fundraising campaign helped shrink last year’s $3 million deficit to less than $300,000.

Despite that progress, a group of a dozen dissident board members calling itself “Leadership of Conscience” tried unsuccessfully to unseat Bond, and complained that the president’s search was an example of how the NAACP is ruled by an elite inner circle that is out of touch with its grass roots.

Last year, the NAACP recruited a 15-member search committee made up of activists, scholars and eight board members. The panel named three finalists to the board’s 17-member executive committee, led by Bond.

According to syndicated columnist George E. Curry, the other finalists for the top post included Alvin Brown, 37, a senior adviser to former President Bill Clinton; and the Rev. Frederick D. Haynes III, pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas.

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com