The Trials of Benjamin Jealous | The Nation


The Trials of Benjamin Jealous

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Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Alfred Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute, is the author of The Beautiful Struggle: A Father...

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On a crisp Sunday morning in February, Benjamin Jealous--the president and CEO of the NAACP--stepped out of a yellow cab and made his way into Harlem's storied Abyssinian Baptist Church. He was accompanied by an assistant and a church emissary assigned to shepherd Jealous to the offices of Abyssinian's patriarch, the Rev. Calvin Butts. This was no mean feat. As Jealous walked in, right hands were extended all around, eager to press flesh.

At 36, Jealous is the youngest person ever to head the NAACP. It's a subtle nod to the hip-hop generation, a fact that seems to amaze everyone except Jealous, who hasn't had much time to rest on accolades. Since taking over the NAACP last September, he's been charged with the work of the philosopher and the yeoman. On the one hand, he's had to grapple with the purpose and mission of a civil rights organization in the age of Obama. On the other, he's been tasked with improving the NAACP's membership, finances and stability. Three of its last four leaders have left under a cloud of controversy, leaving even some allies wondering about the organization's fate. So when Jealous arrived for his meeting with Butts, it was not simply a social call for two civil rights leaders from two different generations but an act of restoration.

Butts, who's been ministering at Abyssinian since before Jealous was born, shook the younger man's hand and offered him a seat. Abyssinian is one of black America's most famous churches. It was the seat of power for Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and its services inspired Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and Nazi resister who conspired to assassinate Hitler.

As it happens, the NAACP was in the midst of its 100th anniversary observance, and Abyssinian was in the midst of its 200th. But Butts explained that Abyssinian and the NAACP had been at loggerheads for more than fifteen years because of the actions of Jealous's predecessors. "The last NAACP president to speak from our pulpit was Benjamin Hooks," Butts said. "We tried to keep up a steady relationship. We were very involved. But a member got very angry with Ben Chavis."

Jealous nodded politely and thanked Butts for the chance to address his congregation. Butts adjusted his clothes and readied his robe for the service. His office was sprawling and gorgeous. There was a large wooden desk and portraits of Kwame Nkrumah, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Malcolm X. There was a knock at the door, and an assistant pastor stepped in to tell the men that the time for morning service had arrived.

Jealous and the processional of church nobles were shuttled downstairs. He sat in the first row, joined by his wife and family. When Butts invited him up to speak, he ushered Jealous to a microphone in front (only preachers are granted the privilege of the pulpit). Jealous looked out and smiled and invoked the history of the NAACP, Abyssinian and the country at large.

"We would not be 100 if you weren't 200," he said. "I'm here like most of you with my head in the clouds of January 20, the day we broke down the color barrier at the White House, but with my feet firmly planted in January 21. My generation was told that all the great battles were over. And we emerged the most murdered people in the country, and the most incarcerated group on the planet."

Jealous finished his speech to broad applause and took a seat next to his family. "Thank you, brother Jealous," said Butts. "You're off to a great start."

Jealous is stocky and over six feet tall. His high-pitched voice is at odds with his stone-serious face. When he laughs, it almost comes as a surprise. His skin is light enough that in the early '90s, when he worked as a reporter and managing editor for the Jackson Advocate, Mississippi's oldest black newspaper, he occasionally passed for white, digging for information beyond the reach of his colleagues. His father is the scion of a prominent white New England family whose ancestors fought at Bunker Hill. Archibald Willard, who painted The Spirit of '76, is a distant cousin. His mother's family traces its ties back to a plantation, and the men in her family were dignitaries during Reconstruction. Despite his lineage, Jealous is tenaciously black and takes unkindly to being called biracial.

"In my family, race and heritage are two different things," says Jealous. "My dad was clear that if he married a black woman, he'd have a black child. That was the law. But there was also a sense, on both sides of the family, that we are American."

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