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“Never Forget Our People Were Always Free”: Civil Rights Leader Ben Jealous on His New Memoir

StoryJanuary 10, 2023
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We speak with civil rights leader Ben Jealous about his new memoir, “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free,” which examines his long career as an activist and organizer, and growing up the son of a white father and a Black mother. He discusses the lessons he drew from his mother, Ann Todd Jealous, and his grandmother, Mamie Todd, about the racism they experienced in their lifetimes. Jealous has led the NAACP and the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way, and is set to be the next executive director of the Sierra Club.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn from the 100th anniversary of the Rosewood massacre in Florida to Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP for years, then head of People for the American Way, and now soon to be the head of the Sierra Club. He’s now a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania and has just written a new memoir — it’s out today — Never Forget Our People Were Always Free: A Parable of American Healing.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Ben. It’s great to have you with us. Congratulations on the publication of your memoir. As we talk about history today, I want to go back to your grandmother and her grandfather, who was born into slavery. Both you are the descendant of enslaved people and Confederate generals.

BEN JEALOUS: Yes. Yeah, my grandmother’s grandfather grew up a slave in Virginia, knowing that his owner was his uncle, knowing that Robert E. Lee was his cousin. And he, on the other side of slavery, built a populist movement in the gap between the end of Reconstruction and the start of Jim Crow with a former Confederate general. And together, they saved the free public schools of the state. That was their cause. They also built Virginia Tech — expanded it radically, rather, and they created the first public Black college south of the Mississippi. It’s just a bold testament to what can happen when we come together. They also abolished the poll tax and the public whipping post. So there you have it, Amy. I mean, we were never taught that there was ever a time when former Confederates and former slaves came together, let alone with a pro-civil rights, pro-public education, pro-workers’ rights platform.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ben, could you talk about your mother, as well? She co-authored the book Combined Destinies: Whites Sharing Grief about Racism and went in depth in that book into more than 50 white people whose lives were deeply affected by racism in America?

BEN JEALOUS: Yeah, this is a book about how racism against Blacks hurts white people. I grew up on a bridge between Black and white, and North and South, and even the old world of the East Coast and the cutting edge of California. My parents built that bridge for their kids, trying to show us that we could be one country. That’s what really motivated me in my book.

But her book was really motivated, in part, by being married to a man who loved his grandfather and yet was disowned by his grandfather. His brothers stood by him. His mom stood by him. But his grandfather disowned him, disinherited them, sent my father into poverty. And, you know, that, watching a white man be attacked by his own grandfather for — because he loved a woman of a different hue really made her realize what Dr. King said was real, that we’re all inextricably linked. There is no — there is no hurting one member of the human family and not hurting yourself.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben, as Juan raised your mother, and I asked about your grandmother, we want to put the three of you together. In 2009, when you were head of the NAACP, you went to a StoryCorps booth, and you talked with your mother, Ann Todd Jealous, and your grandmother, Mamie Todd, about how they responded to some of the racism they experienced in their lifetimes. This aired on NPR’s Morning Edition and starts with your grandmother describing how she taught at an all-Black school in Virginia, where students lacked pencils and paper or books or a working chalkboard. This is what happened when she went to demand changes from the white superintendent of schools.

MAMIE TODD: I went up to the secretary’s desk and said, “I have an appointment.” And she says, “Well, the colored teachers come around the back.” I said, “Beg your pardon?” She said, “Colored teachers come around the back.” I said, “Well, there’s his desk right there.” And so I walked on through and went to his desk. He was sitting there. He didn’t stand up. And there was a chair in front of his desk, so I sat there. And he and I had a conversation. And I just told him how I felt, how I really felt about it. And he was a human being. I knew we had that much in common. And I wasn’t afraid of him. And I —

ANN TODD JEALOUS: Were you ever afraid of anybody?

MAMIE TODD: Oh, I don’t know. I have to think about it. I have to think about it. Anyway, the next day, about 10:30 in the morning, a pickup truck came to school laden with materials, I mean blackboards hanging over the sides. And I had everything I could think of that I had told him that school needed.

BEN JEALOUS: While we’re talking about protests, Mom, tell me about desegregating your high school.

ANN TODD JEALOUS: When I first went there, I remember being assigned a seat, and there was this other girl sitting in my seat. So I went up to say to her, you know, “You’re in my seat.” And she fell onto the floor, she was so terrified. And then I remember —

BEN JEALOUS: You’re really not very scary, Mom.

ANN TODD JEALOUS: I was not. I’m probably more scary now in my old age. The rumor was that we all carried knives, and she was afraid that I would stick a knife in her for sitting in my seat. And actually, I was asking her to move because I was afraid of the teacher, you know, being upset.

BEN JEALOUS: Mimi, what was it like for you to watch her go through this.

MAMIE TODD: It was very difficult, but she kept a lot of it to herself.

ANN TODD JEALOUS: I did not want to burden them. I was an only child, and my parents talked a lot. And I grew up with their stories, and so I was very, very conscious of a great deal that they carried as a consequence of racism. So I kept as much as I could to myself.

BEN JEALOUS: Wow. Thanks, Mom.

ANN TODD JEALOUS: You’re welcome, Ben. Thanks for being interested.

BEN JEALOUS: Yeah.

ANN TODD JEALOUS: Thanks for asking.

BEN JEALOUS: Thanks, Mimi.

MAMIE TODD: Good luck to you, darling.

BEN JEALOUS: Yeah.

MAMIE TODD: There’s a lot to be done.

BEN JEALOUS: Yeah, that’s right.

MAMIE TODD: There’s a lot left to be done.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have Ben Jealous speaking with his mother, Ann Todd Jealous, and his grandmother, Mamie Todd. Ben, as you come out with your memoir, you are the son of a white father and a Black mother who left Baltimore after they married. Interracial marriage then was illegal. You write about being a cousin to both Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee, and you found out you’re distantly related to Dick Cheney. Talk about the writing of this memoir, what you discovered, and why you feel it’s important as a — really, a memoir, narrative of this entire country.

BEN JEALOUS: Virginia really is the cradle of our country. And I didn’t know most of this. You know, like your guest said about Rosewood, like, our elders really don’t speak about the painful parts. Well, my grandmother, you heard her. When she went into that superintendent’s office, part of the reason she insisted on going through the front door was her father’s name was over the front door — her grandfather’s name, rather, because he had saved the free public schools in that county and in that state, not just as a leader of formerly enslaved men, but as a leader of former Confederate soldiers, as well. But I wasn’t taught this history.

And the moment that I realized that, you know, like, Robert E. Lee and Dick Cheney are both my cousins, like, the country felt very small — I just got my first copy on the way over here — and in a way that just, like, made my mind explode.

But the moment I figured out that my grandmother’s beloved grandfather, that his political partner was a former Confederate general and a man who qualified as a war criminal, too — he had massacred an entire Black regiment that surrendered. And yet here they were, 15 years after the war, five years into the reign of terror of the Ku Klux Klan. And while that old war criminal looked like a pretty good ally — like, let the Klan deal with him; we don’t have to deal with him anymore — and they banded together. They took over the entire Virginia state government — the governor, both senators, both houses. They asserted this agenda. They would ultimately be put down by violent white supremacists and disinformation campaigns.

But what’s remarkable, Amy, is they planted the seeds for FDR’s coalition in that state. It was their old lieutenants who would be his — their young lieutenants who would be his old lieutenants in the state. And they demonstrated yet again that there’s a magnetism between the working people of this country across all the lines they use to divide us, wanting to come together. Why? Because our kids need us to.

So, every time now I see Virginia Tech or I see Virginia State or I see a public school in Virginia, I’m reminded these exist the way that we know them because former Confederate soldiers and formerly enslaved men came together, built a third party, took over their state, and asserted their rights and those of their children.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ben, in terms of the lessons for today, especially in the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection and the continued rise and consolidation of a right-wing, neofascist movement in this country, what do you — talk to us about what lessons you draw that today’s generation of activists could learn from.

BEN JEALOUS: We have more in common than we don’t. And that’s always been the case, and it always will be the case.

One of the mysteries that my grandmother gave me, she would say, “Never forget: Before there were slave rebellions, there were colonial rebellions.”

Charles V. Hamilton, the co-author of Black Power, who was my professor in college, he said the exact same thing, but he went further. He said, “Politics is a lot like physics. Something in motion will return to its original state.” And he said, “As Americans, we misremember our original state, because we only focus on movies and TV shows that show us slavery near the end. In the beginning, they weren’t just slave rebellions; they were colonial rebellions. There were white European indentured servants and African slaves rising up together.” And he said, “If you really go back and you look at it, you’ll understand that’s where we’re headed, that we’re going to come together.” He believed that. I believe that. You see evidence of it all around.

It’s the politicians, it’s the 24-hour news often that profit by keeping us divided. But in our hearts, the people of this country want to come together. They know that our kids will do better if we do.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ben, we’re going to do Part 2 of this conversation and post it online at democracynow.org. I think I met you years ago on the grounds of the prison in Jackson, Georgia, where Troy Anthony Davis was executed and you were protesting outside. We’re going to talk about mass incarceration, the death penalty and so many other issues with Ben Jealous, former president of the NAACP, then People for the American Way, now, coming up, will head the Sierra Club. He is the grandson of Mamie Todd, who died last year at the age of 105. She was an outspoken civil rights activist whose work as a social worker led to Maryland’s Child Protective Service Agency. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. The new book, Never Forget Our People Were Always Free.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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