Sunday 25th February 2018,
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Interview with NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous

By Urja Mittal and Sarem Gizaw

Benjamin Jealous is the current President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He is the youngest person to have led the 104-year-old organization. Earlier in his career, Jealous worked as a journalist for a Mississippi newspaper and served extensively in the non-profit sector. As the head of the NAACP, Jealous has led advocacy campaigns on a wide range of issues, ranging from voter mobilization to the death penalty repeal.

What lessons have you learned as the leader of one of the nation’s largest African-American civil rights organization that could be translated into leadership in other arenas, such as politics and business?

What lessons have you learned as the leader of one of the nation’s largest African-American civil rights organization that could be translated into leadership in other arenas, such as politics and business?

BJ: Courage is cheap and yet our most valuable commodity. Courage really just comes down to making a decision that you’re going to do the right thing. It doesn’t cost anything to do that except for what it takes to overcome your own fears.

When I was a young investigative reporter in Mississippi, while on hiatus from college, I was investigating the case of a farmer who was being framed for arson. And there was evidence that the sheriff may have been involved in framing him. The sheriff was not a nice person. There came a moment when the death threats became very specific and very credible—death threats against me for investigating the case—[and] the guy had two hung juries. This was his third trial. All that happened was a tractor’s tire had burned, but because the tire was attached to the tractor and the tractor was worth a lot of money, it was enough for grand arson. So if he was found guilty, he would have gone to prison for 30 years.

I came to my publisher at my newspaper. My newspaper had been firebombed twice in the 10 years I worked there and would be firebombed again about three years after I left. My beat was public corruption, and the last person to have the beat was a woman who was gang raped by [the] police officers she was investigating. In that context, I went to the publisher and said the death threats are getting specific and credible, and I’m not sure I should continue with this investigation. He said to me, “Son, do you feel like you’re doing what God called you to do?” I said, “Sir, respectfully, that’s kind of a deep question for 7 o’clock in the morning.” He asked more plainly, “Do you think you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing right now?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He said, “Well, son, who are you more afraid of — them fools or God?”

That conversation changed my life, because I, in that moment, was forced to really appreciate the decisions that many people had made before me that ultimately I had benefited from. So in my job now, having gone from the mailroom to being CEO of the parent company, I constantly come back to that conversation and whether it’s working with people within the organization to push people to step out affirmatively in support of marriage equality and the LGBT community, whether it’s taking on the Tea Party, whether it’s pushing a politician to stand up and do the right thing on the death penalty. The example of that small-town Southern publisher who, every time his newspaper was burned down, rebuilt it. Every time they threatened him, he kept on going. When I was scared, [he] encouraged me to acknowledge my fear, but to move beyond it. Courage is cheap — it’s free — but it’s priceless.

The repeal of the death penalty just passed in Maryland, which was a big milestone for the NAACP. At the same time, it has only been passed in certain states so far. How do you see the repeal of the death penalty playing out on a national scale? Do you think the repeal will be passed state by state, or do you think the repeal could be passed as a national policy?

BJ: Maryland is the first state south of the Mason-Dixon Line to repeal the death penalty. It’s the sixth state in six years to abolish the death penalty. It’s the eighteenth overall. Seventeen years ago, when I was a young organizer, I went to work for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and our strategy for 20 years was to repeat the victory of 1972, which was to go to the Supreme Court under the Fourteenth Amendment and have it abolished. That strategy, we tried again and again, for 20 years and kept failing, and so at that point, we changed the strategy to seeking to abolish under the Eighth Amendment.

To do that, you have to prove two things. First, it’s cruel. Second, that it’s unusual. The primary litmus test for a punishment being unusual is state law. Once a majority of states have outlawed [it] or made it an illegal punishment, you can make a persuasive argument to the court that says the punishment is not just cruel, it’s unusual and therefore a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

So we now have a ways to go. There are four more states in play this year — Kansas, Colorado, Delaware, New Hampshire —  and while I don’t think we will necessarily win all those battles this year, I’m very optimistic that if we’ve won six battles in the last six years, we can win eight battles in the next eight years. And be in the Supreme Court within two years of that and abolish it within the next decade.

Can you explain why the NAACP opposes the death penalty?

BJ: The NAACP was founded to end lynching. We’ve always seen the death penalty as being a sanitized version of the same thing. It is used exclusively against poor people. It is used disproportionately against people of color, specifically, black people. Nationally, 43 percent of death row is black. In Maryland, it’s 80 percent. The activism from the NAACP is because of all those reasons.

People are also morally opposed [due to] their religion. For instance, [due to] the strong Christian base in the NAACP, many within say, “Look, Jesus told us to leave vengeance unto the Lord.” There are moral objections. There are religious objections. There are secular moral objections. It is racist. It is targeted solely toward poor people.

What gets the majority of people to support the abolition of the death penalty is that at the end of the day, it’s broken for all of those reasons and it’s racially biased, and it is extremely biased against the poor. It also happens to not work. It’s not an effective deterrent. It is very expensive. And it is not always accurate in its application. We have sent a lot of innocent people in this country to death row, and there’s reason to believe that we’ve killed more than a dozen in the last 40 years. When you put that all together — some people say it’s against their faith, some people say its racist and biased against the poor — most people can get to a place where they say, “It just doesn’t work and we’re better than this.”

We’re the only western nation that still practices the death penalty. We’re one of a handful of nations that still practices it. Among those nations are North Korea, Saudi Arabia, China, [and] Somalia — governments we really don’t want to be associated with. We see ourselves as a beacon for human rights, and you simply cannot be a beacon for human rights in the 21st century and practice the death penalty.

With the election and re-election of President Obama, there was lots of dialogue about the nation moving toward a post-racial era. Others thought that this was a rose-tinted view of the world. What are your thoughts on the progress that the nation has made toward racial equality and social justice over the past four years?

BJ: I’ll say this in three parts. The election of President Obama, more specifically the breaking of the color barrier at the White House was a big moment for our country. It signaled that any child could be president. For the first time in our country, any child could be president, because a black man became president in a year when everyone knew that a woman would be president. Hillary Clinton was the assumed victor.

It wasn’t just a black man. It was a black man who was the son of an immigrant from East Africa. The young people being raised at this moment are the children of the first generation of parents who don’t have to second-guess their children on general principle when the child says that they’re going to be president. There may be specific reasons about the child, but [parents] won’t say, “Baby, nobody like you can be president,” and that’s been the source of many ulcers for many parents for many years. [Before as] a child — whether it’s because she’s a girl, or because he’s black, or because the family has only been in this country for one generation — by the time you’re six you know you’re going to president, but by the time you’re 16, you will know otherwise. President Obama’s election changed that for all of us in an instant because of the context in which it happened, because of the totality of who he is.

With that said, the reason that they call the academic discipline of politics “political science” is because as in physics, in politics, whenever there’s an action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. The breaking of the color barrier at the White House was a big action in a country for which historically it has been understood that only white men can be president. So we should not be surprised [with] the rise of Tea Party. You see simultaneously the expansion of militarized white supremacist organizations around the country. The good news in that is that those groups tend to be small and growing smaller, if you look at their base in the country. And they’re acting exactly like a political force [whose] days are numbered by the demographics of the country and by the rise of your generation, which isn’t just the most diverse generation in our history, it’s the least hung up on race and ethnicity. The most likely to be willing to see their fellow American as simply that — their fellow American. For all those reasons, the last four years have ultimately made me feel more optimistic.

This interview contains minor edits for grammar and clarity.

This interview originally appeared in the spring edition of PPR.

Photo credit: Flickr user jdlasica

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