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Benjamin Jealous on Why He Is Leaving the NAACP, Future Plans

StorySeptember 20, 2013
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Ben Jealous is stepping down as president of the NAACP after a five-year term. After a busy tenure that saw him lead campaigns around issues including the death penalty, voting rights and police racial profiling, Jealous joins us to discuss his future plans: spending more time with his family, educating youth, and exploring the formation of a new political action committee.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben, you are leading a campaign against the death penalty in the United States. What are the other campaigns that the NAACP is waging right now?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: You know, in this city, we continue to really fight to stamp out racial profiling.

AMY GOODMAN: Here in New York.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yeah, the campaign against stop-and-frisk has been one of our biggest national priorities. We stay focused on a whole range of issues, but the chief one for us right now is defending voting rights. Our ability to defend all of our other rights is ultimately leveraged on our ability to defend our right to vote and exercise our right to vote. And the attack that it’s come under has been withering. So we’re very focused right now on restoring Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, stopping voter suppression bills across the country, and expanding voting rights wherever we can. The good news is that this year we’re actually winning more battles to expand voting rights at the state level than we are losing them against those who would suppress them.

AMY GOODMAN: Like where?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: A big victory last year in Maryland. We’ve had several in the West and the North. I mean, unfortunately, voting rights right now is sort of varied state by state. And in those states that are dominated by far-right-wing conservatives, that’s where we’re fighting. But in those other states, we decided just to focus on winning, making sure we have early voting and same-day registration.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, isn’t it also being whittled away in states like Florida, such a key state.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Oh, yeah, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, I mean, you know, and then the U.S. Supreme Court, with the hobbling of Section 4, truly hobbles Section 5 and makes us quite vulnerable in the former Confederacy. But the good thing is that people are fighting, and we’re winning, and we believe that we have a real chance in the next 12 months to restore Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

AMY GOODMAN: The “Stand Your Ground” laws and the Trayvon Martin case—


AMY GOODMAN: George Zimmerman was handcuffed September 9th. His wife had accused him of punching her father in the face and said she was going to be divorcing him, that she was afraid of him. He went to visit the gun factory where the gun was made that he used, that he used to kill Trayvon Martin.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: You know, George, George Zimmerman, is the poster child for why we ought to get rid of Stand Your Ground laws. He’s a self-appointed vigilante who killed an innocent boy because of the fears in his mind, nothing that the boy was doing except for being black and walking down the street. And I think we can look forward, starting probably in 2015, when the states reconvene for their legislative sessions, to repealing Stand Your Ground laws in many states. In the meantime, our biggest success has been stopping the spread of them, and that’s just as important.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re leaving the NAACP.


AMY GOODMAN: I think a lot of people were shocked when the news came out just a few weeks ago that you’ve decided to move on.


AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been the head of many high-profile campaigns. What has made you decide to leave?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Look, you know, I’ve been an organizer since I was 18, and I was pulled out of the mail room in the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where I was working my way through college. And I now have a young family. I have a son who’s 14 months, a daughter, seven and a half. I’m the youngest person ever to lead the association and have the youngest family. And last summer, Amy, I was at the funeral here in the city of the daughter of one of our great leaders of the NAACP who had died young of a heart attack, and he was the last person in his thirties to be named president. And people there talked about the pain that his daughter carried 57 years after he died, well into her seventies, from feeling like she missed her father so much when she was young and he was on the road. The year my son was born, I traveled 145 days. And my dad’s a feminist leader in California who spoke, you know, very passionately about the responsibilities of fatherhood to me as a kid, and who, frankly, gave up working for two years when I was small, about my son’s age, and then went back to, quite frankly, the sort of cat’s cradle life that activists often have with their parents and their children. But because—

AMY GOODMAN: What did it mean to you that he was there then for the two years?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Those two years formed an emotional bond that sustained us ever since. So, I just can’t—I can’t miss that opportunity with Jack, can’t miss that opportunity with Morgan. I happened to make my daughter a promise when she was three that I would only do this for five years, turn the place around and be back to being an activist in the NAACP and not being the president of the NAACP. And she actually has held me to it. So, you know, at the end of the day—

AMY GOODMAN: Morgan, your daughter?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yeah, yeah, Morgan is going to be quite the activist one day. And as a fifth-generation member of the NAACP, you can be very clear that you ultimately will have many opportunities to serve, but as a parent, you have to understand you only have one chance to get it right with your kids.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you plan to do when you leave the NAACP?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Well, you know, I plan on teaching and continuing what I’ve done, what I’ve been doing with De’Jaun over the last several years, what I’ve done with many others, you know, training the next generation of young leaders. But I’m very eager to actually start a PAC. And some of it goes back to this case. You know, we were very much betrayed by the local DA, who was a black DA, who would not have had his job but for the support of the civil rights community. And in the black community, especially—well, in the black community, we don’t have sufficient ability to reward and punish people in politics. We need to have a strong PAC. There’s tremendous opportunity in the Southeast. We’re going to see black candidates who can win at the state-wide level increasingly across the South over the next 20 years, and we need to accelerate that. And so, that’s what I’m focused on. That’s what I’m doing sort of a feasibility study of right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Kim, as you listen to Ben Jealous—he was a key part of the campaign for your brother—I give you the final words on this day, as we move into the second anniversary of Troy’s death.

KIMBERLY DAVIS: Well, you know, I just want to thank Ben for all the years. And Ben is not just the president of the NAACP. Ben is actually a part of our family. My nephew De’Jaun calls Ben “Uncle Ben.” My niece Kiersten calls Ben “Uncle Ben.” And I know that Ben is actually going to be standing by our side and going to help us continue with this. The fight is not over. It’s actually just beginning, and we still have a long way to go. I just ask the supporters that are still out there, you know, to continue to fight with us. Let your voices be heard. Get out and help us. One by one, state by state, we’re going to bring this death penalty down. We need everyone to stand behind us, continue to let your voices be heard. Stand up, and let’s get it done.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. Kim Davis and Jen Marlowe will be at St. Mary’s Church in Harlem tonight, I think it’s at 7:00, as the book, I Am Troy Davis, is released. Ben Jealous, thanks so much, and best of luck. Ben Jealous, outgoing president of the NAACP.

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