The NAACP:  Telling Time by Revolutionary Clocks

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Historian Lerone Bennett, Jr. observed in 1968 that, “It’s hard to tell time by revolutionary clocks.”  All of us who aspire to social change are continually challenged to assess the moment we are in and then determine the best and most effective course of action for that particular period.  Reflecting on Benjamin Todd Jealous’ tenure as President of the NAACP, it is clear that this is a brother who knows what time it is.

 

Back in 2007, when Ben worked in San Francisco, he and I would have drinks at the San Francisco Ferry Building on the last Wednesday of every month. In those wide-ranging discussions, we would talk about the state of the world, our lives, and what we could do to make the world a better place. We usually focused on philanthropy (Ben worked at a California foundation at the time), law, or politics, but one day he mentioned the idea of throwing his hat into the ring of the NAACP’s search for a new President and CEO.

At first I thought the idea was crazy. Many people, myself included, questioned the relevance of what was considered an anachronistic, ineffective, bureaucratic organization. But there was something else afoot in the country at the time. A little-known African American Senator with a funny name was generating buzz and excitement with his nascent Presidential campaign. In terms of a revolutionary clock, it was quite possible that it was time for a country whose history was stained by slavery and the assassinations of civil rights leaders to now elect a Black man as President of the United States.

In the context of entering the age of Obama, the opportunity and challenge of transforming the country’s oldest and largest civil rights organization became particularly intriguing and important. It was a moment in history that required the right leader to seize the time.

Five years later, we can say that without any question, Ben was the right man for the moment. He has led the NAACP’s return to the cutting edge role it used to occupy and brought its moral and political force to the critical issues of the day. Consider his legacy:

    • For the first time, the NAACP officially embraced the rights of gays and lesbians in the form of support for marriage equality

 

    • The Association is now squarely on the side of comprehensive immigration reform, and Ben has frequently and prominently spoken out in favor of inclusion of all immigrants

 

    • Maryland’s repeal of the death penalty last year was due, in no small part, to the advocacy of the NAACP and Ben’s visible leadership

 

    • Breaking out of past isolation from potential allies, the NAACP now routinely partners with environmental, LGBT, and Latino and Asian American organizations

 

    • At a time when a Black President of the United States has often been politically constrained from speaking out about racial issues, the NAACP and Ben have spoken truth to power about racism, poverty, prison conditions, and unemployment across the country


Equally important to social change – and too often overlooked by social change activists – is the importance of an organization’s internal operations, revenues and financial stability. It is here that Ben’s impact has been most profound:

    • Annual revenue has increased from $25.6 million in 2008 to $46 million last year

 

    • The email list has grown from 174,000 names to 1.3 million

 

    • The NAACP’s voter registration and mobilization operation (ably led by stellar organizer Marvin Randolph, one of Ben’s best hires) registered 374,553 people in 2008, with 100,000 of those new registrations coming in Florida. Obama won re-election in Florida by 74,309 votes


It’s amusing that people have cognitive dissonance about Ben’s departure from the NAACP at a time when things are going so well. The notion of “going out on top” is apparently a foreign concept to many of us, but the time is right for Ben to make this move.

First of all, the brother needs a break. He typically spends 145 days on the road, and he does in fact have two young children and an extraordinary wife who too rarely sees her husband.

Beyond the need for personal rejuvenation, it is once again time to try to read the revolutionary clocks. We have completed one journey by electing and re-electing the first Black President. The truth of the matter is that the end of the Obama era is on the horizon, and we all have to think about what this new moment demands. It is not 100% clear what the answer to that question will be, but the conversation has begun, and Ben will soon have time to fully throw himself into that reflection and planning.

One next step Ben has signaled is the need to build an electoral political and financial force that can harness the power of the emerging new multi-racial majority in America. We’ve begun that conversation and are kicking around some exciting ideas that should be ready to roll in early 2014.

America turned a corner in 2008, and as we look to the challenges of the next decade, we are fortunate to be able to benefit from a revitalized NAACP and to partner with the man who helped make the most of the moment that was. And now, on to what is and will be.

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