When he was 21 years old, Benjamin Jealous, former president and CEO of the NAACP, said he thought there was no need to speak up for civil rights anymore. But after a conversation with his grandmother, he realized that the time for activism was not over.
“We got what we were fighting for, but we lost what we had,” he told an audience of about 60 students and faculty on Monday, Feb. 3 in the Bright Family Screening Room. “We got the right to be police officers, but we lost safe communities. We got the right to send our children to any school in town, but lost the right to assume they would be loved and welcome to whatever school they went to.”
He went on to tell a story about asking his grandmother in 1994 why things had not changed for the better for blacks in America.
“I told my grandmother, ‘You said we were the children of Martin Luther King’s dream,’” he said. “‘You had killed Jim Crow. All we had to do was to keep our nose clean and continue a steady path, and you said everything else had fallen into place.’”
Jealous’ visit was the second event sponsored by Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interests, or EBONI, as a part of their Self Reflection on African-American Heritage Month, which includes workshops, panels, and presentations over the next several weeks.
Jealous said that on a bus ride back to college from his grandmother’s house in New Jersey, he wrote down a list of issues black Americans were facing. He circled one that became his mission to end: discrimination in the justice system.
“The challenge was never to make it safe, in the eyes of NAACP, for a person of color to break the color barrier in the White House that slaves built once,” he said. “It was to make sure it happened again, so no one could say it was a fluke and everyone would understand that change was here and it’s never going back.”
Donovan Birch Jr., a senior political communication major and president of EBONI, said he hoped the audience felt a sense of empowerment after hearing Jealous speak.
“We chose to invite Benjamin Jealous because we felt he embodied where black politics is moving toward,” said Birch. “He’s one of the first people in charge of a major black organization to speak in favor of marriage equality, immigration, and achieving change for everyone — not just the black community.”
Earlier that day, Jealous led the workshop “How to be an Activist” in the Bill Bordy Theater. During the hourlong presentation, he addressed controversial issues including immigration, discrimination, and voting rights, while incorporating what he identified as the key elements necessary to raise public awareness about these topics.
As a former journalist and community organizer, Jealous said it’s vital to use media to shed light on issues at the local and national level. Jealous said one of the best tactics for creating awareness is through writing and communication.
In an interview with the Beacon, Jealous said coming to Emerson was very important to him because of the school’s focus on relations.
“Media and activism have interpolated since the beginning,” said Jealous. “It’s important to use the social outlets we have at our disposal right now.”
In addition, Jealous said successful activism requires the ability to organize large groups of people.
“The next generation of activists gets to decide how fast the future comes,” he said.
Between 2008 and 2013, when he was president of the NAACP, Jealous said he increased the number of online activists associated with his organization from 185,000 to two million, aided in the abolishment of the death penalty for minors in five states, petitioned and helped win marriage equality in four states, and supported President Barack Obama in his 2012 re-election.
Jealous told the audience that in April 2013, he helped organize a march in Jackson, Miss. that protested the propsed reconstruction of Mississippi Valley State, a historically black college, into a prison. Jealous said to have a successful march, he needed to incorporate at least five percent white people.
“We were looking for white liberals in Mississippi on short notice,” he joked.
He said it was the largest and most successful march of students in Mississippi’s history to date.
“Change often comes faster than you think is possible,” he said.
Taylor Jett, a sophomore visual and media arts major and the co-vice president of EBONI, said Jealous’ teachings could benefit the Emerson community.
“The objective of this workshop is to make Emerson students aware and teach them different ways to develop leadership skills,” said Jett. “Right here on campus we’ve had racial discrimination issues, and since Emerson prides itself on diversity, it’s important we go against it.”
Following his speech, Jealous allowed time for a brief question-and answer-period. Only a couple of students raised their hands to ask Jealous about his speech.
During this time, Jealous told another anecdote about how his previous African-American boss at a local newspaper was friends with a former Ku Klux Klan member. He recalled his boss and his friend going out to lunch every month and talking about the Civil War. Jealous said this kind of friendship showed the power of overcoming racial and moral differences, and that when his boss died, the KKK member was at the funeral, crying for the loss of a good friend.
“The lessons you learn now and the crazy risks you take,” he said, “will affect you for the rest of your life.”