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.