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Parable of American Healing: Fmr. NAACP Pres. Ben Jealous Shares Family History of Fighting Racism

Web ExclusiveJanuary 10, 2023
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In Part 2 of our interview with Ben Jealous, former head of the NAACP, now professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania, he discusses his family history of fighting white supremacy as detailed in his new memoir, “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free,” his work to fight stop incarceration and abolish the death penalty, and more.

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 to Part 2 of our conversation with Ben Jealous, former president of the NAACP, then president of People for the American Way, just about to be executive director of the Sierra Club. He’s currently professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania. And he ran for governor of Maryland. Well, Ben Jealous is out with a memoir today. It’s called Never Forget Our People Were Always Free: A Parable of American Healing.

When Ben was president of the NAACP in 2011, we spoke on the grounds of the Georgia prison where Troy Anthony Davis was being executed. Ben Jealous was protesting outside.

BEN JEALOUS: Those of us who knew Troy Davis, who sat with him, who talked to him, know that he was somebody who was full of love, full of love for his family, full of love for humanity, full of love for a movement that he was born into, a movement for civil and human rights in this country, somebody who said, “This movement started before I died. No matter what happens on the 21st, it must grow stronger.”

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ben Jealous speaking just after Troy Anthony Davis was executed in 2011. His new memoir, out today, Never Forget Our People Were Always Free: A Parable of American Healing.

Ben, thank you so much for staying with us for Part 2 of this conversation. I want to start off by asking you about your title, Never Forget Our People Were Always Free, how you chose it, and then the kind of issues you take on, but in this book, talking in each case about what gives you hope — unlikely people across the political spectrum actually working together.

BEN JEALOUS: You know, Troy Davis’s campaign was an example of that. I was on death row with him. We were surrounded by guards. We were sitting in the room where they let you bring your family and your friends. The guards were all around us. Troy was telling me his story for the first time. I had worked on his case for 15 years at that point, but I had never met him. And now I was meeting him with his sister and his nephew. And there were tears running down the guards’ faces, because, you know, they see a lot of killers on death row, and they know what a killer looks like, and Troy wasn’t one. And they knew that meant that if the Supreme Court didn’t stop his execution, they would have to be his killer. They would be the ones to murder an innocent man. Their former warden had raised his voice trying to stop the execution. That’s part of why he was the former warden. The governor got rid of him to keep it going. And, you know, when you’re a prison guard, it’s often because there’s no other job to support your families. When you have real working-class white folks crying, you know, as death row guards because they’re going to have to execute somebody — and it speaks to what’s in my book, Never Forget Our People Were Always Free, that there’s — you know, that our hearts pull us together.

The title came from my grandma. It was a riddle, Amy. She would say this, like, as a closer when we’re talking about, for instance, the fact that we were products of rapes on plantations. And she’d say, “Never forget our people were always free.” It didn’t make any sense. Three of her grandparents were born into slavery. I confronted her, and she kind of crumbled. And it was like if you said to a devout nun, like, “Immaculate conception seems impossible. What else you got?” Like, she just crumbled. It was an article of faith. And what I realized as I did the research for this book was that that saying was said by her grandmother, by her mother. It echoed down the maternal line. What we figured out, with the help of Henry Louis Gates Jr. at Harvard, was that my grandmother’s maternal line in America begins with an Afro-Polynesian pirate, with a pirate kidnapped from Madagascar, a group of Afro-Polynesian pirates resisting an onslaught from European pirates. They lost the battle. They were captured and enslaved. And, well, what else would a pirate woman say to the children first born into slavery in her family, but “Never forget our people were always free”? It’s the only point in our history in America and our family where that made sense. And for reasons I get into in the book, it was pretty clear that that’s what was happening, that the women were repeating this down the line.

That was ultimately, you know, a rallying cry, a call to insurrection. It’s what gave my grandmothers steel in their back. It explained, in my eyes, why all the women in that line were rebels. They ran away from slavery. They fought to, you know, protect children. My mom sued her high school when she was 12. All inspired by the first to be brought here, a woman who had been a pirate when she was free.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ben, I wanted to ask you — you’re soon to be head of the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club has a checkered history when it comes to the issue of race and white supremacy. Many — unfortunately, several major national environmental groups do. But I’m wondering if you could talk about that a little bit, and what your expectations are in terms of — they’ve reckoned with it a couple of years ago, acknowledged that several of their founders, like Joseph LeConte and John Muir, were very much involved in or connected to white supremacist movements, at the same time that they were defending the environment and seeking to protect the planet. Wondering what your thoughts as you head into this new job.

BEN JEALOUS: John Muir was somebody who wrestled with all this. You know, I grew up really appreciating him. I grew up — you know, my parents had fled Maryland. They raised me in Northern California. I grew up amongst the redwoods. I slept in the base of them as a kid. And I grew up knowing that John Muir, even as he, you know, made comments that were very typical for the late 19th century, and very problematic by today’s standards, very problematic by a lot of standards, also carried Thoreau’s papers with him and reading Thoreau’s case for the abolition of slavery. He was a man who wrestled with the issues of the day.

Fundamentally, today’s Sierra Club is the most inclusive, the largest, the biggest, the oldest, but also the most inclusive environmentalist organization in this country. And the staff there is phenomenally diverse, and all of their communities on fire to save our planet, to save our wild places. Juan, you know, as men of color, as communities of color, our poor people, of all colors, tend to grow up sort of more impacted by climate change, you know, in the bottoms, in the places most likely to flood, in the places that seem to always get hit by tornadoes. And so, I’m excited to lead that staff. I’m excited to lead this organization.

Sierra Club, at the end of the day, is a very American organization. And like our country, it’s evolved a lot since the late 19th century and the men who led it then. But it’s also true that those men also left great legacies, not just problematic ones. As, you know, citizens of this country, it’s something we wrestle with all the time. And the great parts of the legacy, like Yosemite National Park and our national park system, are really incredible. And I’m proud to help keep that part of the legacy going.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben, as you talk about bridging the east and the west of this country, your parents forced out of Maryland because they were in an interracial marriage — it wasn’t legal in Maryland; you then go to California — you talk about mass movements and working across the aisle, if you will, like working with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to tackle mass incarceration, or, following up on Troy Anthony Davis, so seminal in your life and in your work at the NAACP, your work to end the death penalty in this country, and for voting rights, when it comes to mass incarceration, for those who come out of prison. Talk — give us some specific examples of what has happened, and where you see progress and where you don’t.

BEN JEALOUS: Sure. You know, well, right after Troy Davis was executed, we were able to abolish the death penalty in a state south of the Mason-Dixon for the first time, Maryland, and then it would happen in Virginia. And we did that with the help of Republicans, like then-Lieutenant Governor Mike Steele. Down in Georgia, Stacey Abrams and I got together with Governor Nathan Deal, a tea party governor, and decided the one thing we could all agree on was that Georgia’s prison system was too big. And actually, we figured out there was another thing, which was we needed to send people who were addicts to rehab, not to prison. His son, Nathan Deal’s son, was a drug court judge. And we got that done, shrinking one of the — shrinking the fourth-largest prison system in the state. We would do similar things in Texas. Working with the tea party there through the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, the NAACP helped get Rick Perry to sign 50 progressive criminal justice reform bills for the first time in history in — for the first time in the history of Texas, shutting down prisons. They had never done that before.

But Virginia was probably the most remarkable conversation in many ways. Tim Kaine was on his way from being governor of Virginia as a Democrat to being chairman of the DNC. And I called him. It was kind of the season of clemency at the end of his term as governor. And I asked him to simply issue a pardon to formerly incarcerated people — white, Black, Brown, Asian, Native American — across the state, restoring their voting rights once they had served their time — Virginia, one of only two states with a lifetime ban on formerly incarcerated people voting. And he flatly refused.

So I said, “What the heck? I’ll just call his successor.” So, then in comes a Republican conservative attorney general to be the governor, Bob McDonnell. And I go and I sit down with him, and I ask him to do the same thing. And he looks at me. He says, “Why don’t we try to get the Legislature to do it first. And if not, I’ll use my executive powers.” And that’s what he did. And he literally became the first governor.

You know, Tim Kaine, it was kind of in his political interest, arguably. There are a lot of whites and Blacks in prison, but more Blacks than whites in Virginia, and they tend to vote Democrat. So, Tim Kaine could profit. Bob McDonnell had no political profit. He simply thought it was the right thing to do. He believed in a right to redemption. He and I both now sit on the Racial Reconciliation Commission for the state.

We need politicians to have courage. Tim Kaine, ironically, started his career as a civil rights lawyer. He knew it was the right thing to do. Dr. King, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” was quite damning of moderates who know what the right thing is, but refuse to do it. Bob McDonnell showed courage. And in the end of the day, that’s what we need.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And to follow up on that, Ben, in terms of courage, we’ve got a record number of progressive Democrats in Congress, and yet we are still seeing the Congress passing record levels of military and war spending. And unfortunately, a lot of those progressives, even a guy that you worked with closely, Bernie Sanders, have not really stood out in terms of trying to oppose this kind of spending, or at least not thrown down the gauntlet on it. I’m wondering your concerns about the continued military spending by the United States to the detriment of the domestic spending that is so required.

BEN JEALOUS: I was having a conversation with a vet the other day, a former active-duty U.S. marine, about Camp Lejeune and the dirty water there. And there’s now been a lot of lawsuits and settlements. And what we were talking about was our shared pain that all this money goes into the military, and yet they shortchange the soldiers and the vets all the time. The money that goes in the military disproportionately goes right out in the hands of profiteers, you know, the military-industrial complex, companies that are building new weapons systems when the old ones work just fine. But it doesn’t really make sure that the soldiers and the sailors and the marines even get clean drinking water, or that they get paid well enough to really support their families.

And so, that’s the thing that we really, I think, need to reckon with as a country, is, one, we need to have a vision about what is our military for. It should be for defense. We’re involved in far too much offense. And that tends to kill empires, as you know. I mean, you look at why the Soviet Union failed and why did Rome fall. Two things: overspending on incarceration at home, incarcerating too much of your domestic population, and overspending on domestic — on entanglements abroad, on wars overseas. We need to get back to really seeing our military as a tool for defense. And we need to make sure that we’re, frankly, spending less, and the money that we spend, really make sure that our — first and foremost, that our soldiers, our sailors, our marines are treated well, our vets are treated well. General Eisenhower warned us about this. He warned us about the lobbyists from the defense companies. And they are run amok in Washington, and it’s impoverishing our country. And if you look at old empires, it also, frankly, seems to be one of the big things that could spell our demise. We need to take it quite seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, you — the power of your memoir are your stories, your personal stories with your family, as well as the stories of people you’ve met, like forging an unlikely friendship in rural Mississippi with an elderly white man who helped stop the state from turning a historically Black college into a prison. Can you tell us that story, and also the story of listening with Stacey Abrams to the son of a former Klansman?

BEN JEALOUS: Yes. You know, Stacey and I met in Mississippi on that campaign. And in that campaign, the governor, Fordice, who was like a prototype for Trump, quite literally — same background, businessman, racist talk, you know, kind of a whack job, to be honest — he came into office, and he literally said, in response to a Supreme Court judgment that the state eradicate its dual system of higher education, rather than, “Well, we’ll let everybody into all the schools,” he said, “We’ll just shut down the historically Black colleges, and we’ll raise the requirements to get into any of our universities,” that would exclude about 80% of the Black students and a lot of the white students. And so, there we were fighting. And then, they said to him, “Well, what are you going to do with these colleges?” He says, “Oh, we’ll shut down that one. We’ll make that one majority white. And the third one, Mississippi Valley State, we’ll make that a prison.”

And it was — Earth Day was coming up. And we decided that was our best chance to find our white allies in the state. So we found out — we fanned out organizers. And then, one set of the organizers — you know, all of them reported things went well, except for one, and they were late getting home. And we all met up at a Waffle House about 2:00 in the morning. They had gone up to Mississippi State University. They had asked for help at Earth Day to save the Black colleges. But it was — they didn’t let them speak during the Earth Day rally. They waited for it to become a keg party after. And after the third encore of “Sweet Home Alabama,” they put them on stage. They asked for help. And the crowd started chanting, “Get a rope. Get a rope. Get a rope.” And so, these young men, our young organizers, said, “You know, we did that crazy two-step. We didn’t want to run, because we didn’t want them to chase us. But we had to get off campus as quick as possible.”

And there we were in Jackson figuring it out, and an old white man was staring at us. And in Mississippi, for 100 bucks back then and no felonies, you could carry a concealed firearm wherever you wanted to go. And we didn’t know if he had one. And when he walked over to our table still frowning, he just — you know, he ultimately put out his hand. And he said, “I’m so proud of you boys.” He was calling us “boy.” We didn’t like that. But he seemed sincere. He said, “If I was born” — he used a curse word. He said, “But if I was born Black in this state, I’d be mad as heck, too.” And he offered to help.

And that changed my whole style of organizing in that moment. You know, we were afraid of him. We didn’t know if we needed to physically restrain him. We didn’t know if he had a gun. Some other white folks just threatened to kill our organizers. And yet, he was walking and speaking out of his heart. He had taken a moment to think about what it was like to be Black in Mississippi and how outrageous it was. They wanted to turn a college into a prison. He signed up for the march. He donated. He showed up. And ultimately, so did hundreds of other white people, to a march of about 15,000 people. But it was enough to send a signal that Mississippi would come together on this. Those colleges still exist. Those colleges got more funding because of that courage. And it connected Stacey Abrams and I for life.

And fast-forward, I’m president of the NAACP, Amy and Juan, and we’re down at the Moore’s Ford Bridge. It was the last horrific lynching in Georgia’s history. People still get lynched, but now it’s quiet. A corpse will be found hanging in a forest. But back then, everybody in town was there. And then, yet, when the FBI would show up the next day, or, you know, the feds would show up the next day, nobody remembered anything. In Moore’s Ford, they literally cut a baby from the womb of a woman tied to a tree. They stopped two Black couples driving on the road. They ripped them out of their cars. They tied them to trees. They killed them. They burned them. But first they removed a fetus from the belly of one of the women. And I was sitting in a church. I had come to interview the nephew of two of the — the nephew and son of two of the lynchers, who had been burdened with hearing the firsthand accounts of his father and his uncle right after and them celebrating their savage torture and execution of these Black couples. And he was literally dissembling, Amy and Juan, right in front of us as he told their story.

And I was grateful for Stacey that day. She had come to witness it and to talk about her strategy for building a movement in the state. And she had also come as the aunt, if you will, the adopted aunt to my 7-year-old daughter. And she literally brought her a DVD with a little screen and some headphones and just put them over her ears, because she didn’t want her to be burdened as a 7-year-old the way that that man was burdened when he was 7. She knew it would be too much for my daughter to hear. So my daughter watched The Nutty Professor while Stacey and I took notes.

And I sent the video right to the DOJ, because we’re still trying to close these cases, and we’re still trying to make sure that anybody is brought to justice, but, most importantly, because most of the people are dead now, that the truth is known. And it was great to watch that man walk out of that church. He literally stood up straighter. He had been burdened his entire life almost with that story. And just having told the truth to people who would do something about it, you could see that he was — he would be able to live a life with kind of less burden and greater dignity.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ben, I wanted to ask you a little bit about politics. I mean, obviously, you ran for governor of Maryland. You were — you endorsed Bernie Sanders and were a major national surrogate for his presidential campaign. We’re heading into another presidential campaign, and the Democrats are going to have to decide whether some of them are going to run in a primary against Joe Biden, if Biden decides to run. Your sense of what the Democratic Party should be looking for, and progressives or radicals should be looking for, in terms of the next presidential race?

BEN JEALOUS: We need to put forward a candidate who it is clear really stands with the people, who’s willing to stand up to corporations, who can unite this country. I believe those folks exist. A lot of them are young. You know, if Joe Biden runs, I’ll support him, because, quite frankly, there’s a lot of power in incumbency, and right now he looks like the best shot. If he doesn’t run, I think the party really needs to look to its younger bench. It’s got to look to people who can pull people together.

Wes Moore just won overwhelmingly. Third time’s the charm. You know, three Black men have run for governor in Maryland — I was the second — in a row. And Wes won. Anthony Brown and I sat down with him to coach him on how to get through it, and he did it. He’s a vet. He’s the type of person, I think, who has a profile that can pull folks together in this moment. There are others like that in the party.

We need to look for people who can pull folks together. And this is a populist moment in this country. The people are, frankly, too poor to want to feel like they’re dealing with a candidate who’s bought and, you know, who’s a wholly owned subsidiary of corporations. We’ve got to have people who will fight for the people — we’ve got to have politicians who will fight for the people.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ben, in your book, you talk about the link between people and what looks like different sides of the political spectrum is class, and that’s really what unites people, especially working people in this country. Give us some examples of that. And if you can end on talking about an issue which was — is one of the most critical issues in your life, the death penalty, what it means, as we used to talk, when you were head of the NAACP, about getting it banned in this country, the only country in the industrialized world to have the death penalty, making it cruel and unusual? What, half the states voting against it could then overturn it with a court decision. If you can talk about those things?

BEN JEALOUS: Sure. You know, when you walk into a death row, when you walk into a prison, what you realize really right away are two things. One, you’re like, “Wow! There’s a lot of white people here,” because our media really only shows us images of Black folks who are being convicted for serious crimes. They don’t show you the white images. You know, our media shows us pretty much only images of Black and Brown poor people, even though the biggest group of poor has always been white people. And so, you look around, it’s a little bit disorienting compared to what you’ve seen in the media. And then it settles in, and you realize, “Oh, what 95% of these people have in common is that they grew up poor. They were too poor to afford a lawyer.” And then you listen to them, as I have, on death rows and in prisons — white, Black, Brown, Native American, Asian American — and their lives are actually pretty similar.

And so, you know, we — when I was researching Never Forget Our People Were Always Free, what really blew me away was figuring out that my grandmother’s grandfather — you know, she had been inspired by her grandfather the way I was inspired by her. And my grandmother was a great anti-poverty crusader, even more than campaigning for racial justice. Her most famous protégé, Senator Barbara Mikulski, who she trained as a social worker. And what I discovered was that she inherited that fight against poverty from her grandfather.

Her grandfather had — was the leader of the Black Republicans, which was then the radical progressive group in Virginia, in the early 1880s, in the little gap between the end of Reconstruction and the start of Jim Crow. And the plantation class was ascending, because they had been reenfranchised by the Hayes-Tilden Compromise in 1876. And they were boldly stating, “There is no way we can afford to pay the Civil War debt and these free — and pay for these free public schools that the Reconstruction government started. So we’re going to shut down the free public schools.” And working-class whites left the Democratic Party, which back then was the conservative party, in droves, started a new party called the Readjusters, their leader a former Confederate general and railroad magnate named William B. Mahone, who had decided, rather than suppressing a populist uprising, to join it, because he figured it would benefit Southern railroads, and he also agreed with the cause of the soldiers he used to lead.

My grandmother’s grandfather, Edward David Bland, looked at William Mahone, and he recognized him. William Mahone was a notorious man thought to be a war criminal by Blacks in southern Virginia because of the Battle of the Crater. When a Black regiment surrendered, he massacred all of them. But this was 15 years after the war, and it was five years into the reign of terror of the Ku Klux Klan. And these two men joined together. And they brought former Confederates, and they brought enslaved men together, and they built the biggest party in the state. They took over the governorship. They took over both U.S. Senate seats. They took over both houses of the Legislature. And they built a movement whose legacy endures to this day. They were violently repressed. Six people were assassinated during their reelection bid. Horrible disinformation that spawned violence, like we saw in Buffalo last summer, was down in Danville, Virginia, where Blacks were killed in the square because of lies put out in pamphlets saying that they were raping white women, which was not happening. And then they were erased from the history books. I mean, think about it. Did anybody ever teach you that former Confederates and former slaves got together to save public school systems in Virginia, let alone several states, as they did?

And so, what that really confirmed for me was that you could just keep going back through American history and seeing whites and Blacks and Brown people, Native Americans, Asian Americans, coming together in the interests of their children. Literally, in Virginia, it happened in 1663, 300 years before the March on Washington. It kept happening.

But what it taught me about race, Amy and Juan, is this, that even sort of upstream from racism is greed. You have to ask yourself: Why would America, a hundred years after the American experiment started in 1619, why would America, in like, say, the 1720s, change the definition of “race”? The definition had been constant for half a millennia. You have to go back to the 1100s in Italy to find where the word comes into the European language. It starts as ”razza” in Italian. And every variation of that means the same thing: genus, type, or, when applied to people, tribe or nation, people bound by geography. And here, America creates a new definition: race as a color caste system, superhuman at top, subhuman at bottom, the whitest of white at the top, the blackest of black at the bottom. Why would America do that? And the answer quickly becomes: because it profited the king, because it profited the colonial lords. They had tried to stop indentured Europeans and enslaved Africans from coming together, and they were failing. Using the military didn’t quite do it. Using new laws didn’t quite do it. So they reach for culture, and they change the definition of a word. And they start to teach whites that you are inherently superior to Blacks as a way to separate the two groups.

This is what Dr. King was assassinated trying to teach us, that at the end of the day, the impact of racism in America, the biggest, broadest impact, is it keeps millions of people of all color trapped in poverty, because it divides them, it splits them, and it eviscerates the power that they would have. He was organizing a Poor People’s Campaign, trying to change that, when he was assassinated.

That is the work of this country. If we’re really going to achieve the promise of this country, we’ve got to come across the old lines, come together in the interests of all of our children. And what my family history taught me when I was researching Never Forget Our People Were Always Free was that Confederate soldiers and formerly enslaved men once did that in Virginia, and it saved the public schools, and it abolished the poll tax, it abolished the whipping post, it built two great public universities, and it laid the seeds for the FDR New Deal coalition. If they can do it, we can do it. So let’s go get it done.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, former president of the NAACP, then head of People for the American Way, currently professor of practice at University of Pennsylvania, and now author of a new book, out today, Never Forget Our People Were Always Free: A Parable of American Healing. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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