Parting Words From Resigning NAACP President Ben Jealous

NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund also loses civil rights pillar in attorney Debo Adebile, who is now counsel for the U.S. Senate judiciary committee.

By Brentin Mock Sep 09, 2013

"We gotta stay focused on passing laws to expand the vote wherever we can, and to roll back voter suppression laws wherever we can and stay focused on that until the job is done," said NAACP President Ben Jealous when I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial. 

That job is far from done, but Jealous will be working it from a different angle come 2014. Yesterday, Krissah Thompson at The Washington Post broke the news that Jealous plans to resign from the 104-year-old civil rights organization at the end of this year. After five years at the NAACP’s helm — and just one year into a recently renewed three-year contract — Jealous is choosing to devote time to his 13-month-old son and 7-year-old daughter, he told Thompson. He’s also venturing into more partisan pastures, getting involved in efforts to help launch progressive candidates into government, particularly in the South, as reported by USA Today.

Roslyn M. Brock, NAACP’s chairman of the organization’s board of director’s said of the announcement:

"We thank President Jealous for his time leading the Association. Under his leadership, the NAACP has built a highly competent staff that will carry our mission forward and meet the civil rights challenges of the 21st century. Our board, staff and volunteer leaders throughout the country deeply appreciate his sacrifice, and will continue to implement our game-changing goals for the next half century that include the restoration of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, implementing Trayvon’s Law, bolstering civic engagement efforts and ensuring our community is enrolled in the Affordable Care Act exchanges."

Sherrilyn Ifil, president of NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, the litigation-focused organization founded by pioneering civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall (no connection to NAACP except in name), said they "applaud the leadership" of Jealous. 

"Although the LDF and the NAACP have been separate organizations for over 50 years, LDF and its director-counsels have always enjoyed a close collaborative relationship with the NAACP," said Ifill. "We have been particularly happy to work with Ben Jealous, who has brought energy, strategic vision and tireless advocacy to his work as the NAACP President. …Jealous leaves his organization with a strong legacy of coalition building and voter mobilization. His efforts have strengthened the entire civil rights community. We look forward to continuing to work with the NAACP, in particular this year as we intensify our efforts to protect minority voting rights in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder."

LDF experienced a departure of a civil rights pillar of their own when one of their leading attorneys Debo Adegbile transitioned in May to join the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee as their special counsel attorney. With the Senate committee, Adegbile will continue the Voting Rights Act protection work he performed with LDF — he delivered oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in defense of VRA in the Shelby v. Holder proceedings — by helping Congress produce a solution for the Section 4 coverage formula. 

As for Jealous, he was also front and center for many of the voting rights battles fought concerning the Voting Rights Act, particularly as the U.S. Supreme Court partially dismantled it this summer. Jealous was also present for voting rights battles beyond the Supreme Court.

In Pennsylvania, where the NAACP continues to fight a photo voter ID law on racial disenfranchisement terms, Jealous told Colorlines at a court hearing on the matter before the November elections: "If the Pennsylvania Republican leadership succeeds in stealing this election by denying people the right to vote there will be hell to pay." 

The Republican leadership did not succeed, despite their verbal confirmation that they were in fact trying to swipe votes from Obama via the voter ID law. 

When I interviewed Jealous at the 50th anniversary ceremony of the 1963 March on Washington, he emphasized the importance of restoring the Voting Rights Act to its fullest complement. He said he was "confident that Congress will restore Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act within the next 12 months, possibly by the end of this year."

But he also warned those concerned about voter ID laws not to take eyes off of Pennsylvania, saying that "What they couldn’t do last year, they’re trying to do for 2016." 

As for Pennsylvania Republicans confession that they were trying to rob Democratic votes, Jealous said, "the very notion that the [Republican] party in that state’s legislature would decide to suppress the votes of his neighbors to try to steal the presidential election was outrageous."

Many of Jealous’s contemporaries are pushing for a constitutional amendment that would guarantee every American the right to vote, which while not an official campaign of the NAACP, is still "a very worthy cause," said Jealous at the ceremony.

Standing with thousands of people gathered behind him that day on the National Mall and President Obama not far away seated at the Lincoln Memorial, Jealous said through wind and rain: "We must be vigilant, we must be organized, and we must stand up and recognize that our right to vote is paramount for our ability to defend all of our other rights."  

Hear Jealous talk about the importance of working with environmental groups in restoring voting rights in this video clip of our interview here:

Ben Jealous from Be Mock on Vimeo.

[Update 1:50 p.m. 9/9/13] More on Jealous’s resgination announcement from the Sierra Club:

"Just a few weeks ago in Washington, civil rights activists marched with environmentalists, union workers, LGBT advocates, and thousands of Americans pushing our nation to fulfill its promise of justice and equality. It was a clear example of the unprecedented alliance of diverse voices and the strength of the civil rights movement of today that would not have been possible without the visionary leadership of Ben Jealous at the NAACP.

Recognizing that justice is not complete when American families don’t have access to clean air and clean water, Ben was instrumental in launching the NAACP’s environmental justice program. And driven by the understanding that the pursuit of justice means protecting workers, our planet, and our democracy, Ben and the NAACP were key in the formation of the Democracy Initiative alongside the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the Communications Workers of America. We have built new relationships, cultivated new strategies, and built new bridges that will move us forward together for years to come.

During Ben’s five years of service, the NAACP has not just added more members and registered more voters — it has courageously built alliances that have strengthened the organization’s cause and bolstered all of us in the struggle to secure a better future for every American. On behalf of the Sierra Club’s 2.1 million members and supporters, we congratulate Ben Jealous on a job well done and we look forward to working closely with his successor to continue building on the foundation he helped construct."