ABOVE PHOTO: From left, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, and Benjamin Jealous, President of the NAACP lead the march for slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin on Saturday, March 31, 2012 in Sanford, Fla. Protesters carried signs, chanted “Justice for Trayvon,” and clutched the hands of their children while they walked from Crooms Academy of Information Technology, the county’s first high school for black students, to the Sanford Police Department. The march was organized by the NAACP and was one of several taking place over the weekend. Martin was shot to death by 28-year-old George Zimmerman on Feb. 26 as he walked from back from a convenience store to his father’s fiancée’s home in a gated community outside Orlando.
(AP Photo/Julie Fletcher)
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
Outgoing NAACP President Ben Jealous was well familiar with the hard knocks that the NAACP had taken in the years before he took over the reins of the organization. Many blacks denounced it as a tired, old organization that had lost its way and ceased being the fighting organization for civil rights of years past. The even more pointed knock against it was that it had become the political springboard for the fast emergent black middle-class. And their battles did not have the remotest bearing on the lives of the black poor. They had grown more numerous, more desperate, trapped in segregated or re-segregated neighborhoods plagued by crime, drugs, and gangs. They shuttled their children off to abominably failing public schools, or are stuffed into bulging jail cells.
The criticism was unfair. In many locales, when there was an issue of housing or job discrimination, police abuse, voting rights denial, it was the NAACP, that still was the first organization that many blacks turned to for help. But this didn’t do much to change the widespread perception among the critics that the NAACP had abandoned the civil rights playing field.
That perception changed quickly with Jealous. The NAACP quickly became an even more visible presence taking outspoken, and very public, stands on the glaring iniquities in the imposition of the death penalty, the racially skewed mandatory drug sentencing laws, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the lack of comprehensive health care for the poor, and grossly underserved, under-performing inner city schools, and chronic double digit black joblessness.
This was just the beginning. Jealous also recognized that times were changing in that the signature battles of the civil rights movement could no longer be exclusively framed in black versus white. The fight for gay rights which the NAACP had at first been at best ambivalent and at worst chilly towards, was here to stay and was just as much a civil rights fight as the fight for racial equality. The same was true for immigration rights, the death penalty abolition, and environmental justice. The organization embarked on a marked shift to reach out to broaden its focus on the issues that it went to bat on while seeking to build coalitions with gay, women, Hispanic, and environmental groups.
Jealous was always at the lead, pushing, prodding, and cajoling NAACP members and leaders to stay in step with if not ahead of the justice struggle on all fronts. This was plainly evident virtually the instant that George Zimmerman gunned down Trayvon Martin. Jealous blasted Florida officials for dragging their feet in the prosecution of Zimmerman, and the NAACP gathered thousands of signatures on a petition demanding the prosecution. Following the Zimmerman’s acquittal, Jealous was relentless. He continued to speak out on the shooting and the verdict and demanded that the Justice Department bring civil rights charges against Zimmerman. In August, the organization turned over a petition with nearly 2 million signatures demanding that the rights charges be filed against him.
Jealous, though clearly supportive of President Barack Obama, did not hesitate at times to take Obama to task especially on the issues of the crisis of black unemployment. He urged the president to do and say more on job creation specifically aimed at denting the crisis. Though Obama resisted the notion of any in-depth, widespread initiatives specifically targeting blacks, he did continue to boost spending and demand that Congress do the same on job and skills training programs that clearly would aid poor black and minority communities. Jealous and the other civil rights leaders continued to make this a priority in meetings with White House officials.
The same was true with the GOP’s assault on the Voting Rights Act. Jealous virtually went on a national crusade, pounding away, against any watering down by the Supreme Court of the Act. Even after the court gutted the Act, Jealous and other civil rights leaders continued to press the Justice Department to file suits against states that continued to gerrymander districts and voting procedures with the sole aim of whittling down the number of black and Hispanic numbers.
Jealous did much to insure that the judicial and at times protest activism that had been the NAACP’s watchword for decades remained its watchword. For that the nation owes Ben an eternal debt of gratitude.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network. His latest ebook ’47 Percent Negro’: A Chronicle of the Wackiest Racial Assaults on President Obama is now available (Amazon).
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