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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: Mr. Jealous, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.
JEALOUS: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
BOND: We generally begin with a question about the Brown decision and you were born two decades after the Brown decision, but for you, what did it turn out to mean?
JEALOUS: Well, I guess the first memories I have associated with it were being on the desegregation bus. The irony is that I was the only black kid on the white bus. The -- you know, and so the struggle that families have trying to make sure that their kid can go to a good school, a school where they can pursue their dreams. My dream was to learn about computers. It was early in the 1980s. I was headed into the fourth grade and the only school that had computers was the black school two towns over and so my parents were — there was just no way, they’re only putting white kids on the bus to go to that school from our town. My father’s white, my mom is black. So my father said, “Don’t worry about it, I’ll just sign the boy up.” I showed up at the bus, curly hair, the bus driver just kind of looked at me and said, “just get on the bus. Just get on the bus.”
On a deeper level, as a parent now, Brown is a constant source of frustration. What Brown signaled to my mom when she desegregated her high school in 1954 in Baltimore was the end of separate, discriminatory, oppressive education regimes in this country, and the reality is that in these days, we have greater segregation in many areas than we did before Brown. We certainly have the greatest level of segregation that we’ve seen in pretty much all areas since Brown. And you have children who grow up with just as little hope of really being able to achieve their dreams as the children we saw in Kenneth Clark’s “black doll studies.”
Brown should be a great sore on the American conscience. It should be something that the entire country is eager to fulfill the mission of — and our role at the NAACP is really to make sure that the country doesn’t forget its obligation to ensure that all kids have access to a quality education until that’s actually achieved.
BOND: I’ve got some research here that says that you are quoted in Columbia College Today suggesting that while Brown led to the desegregation of many areas of public life, schools have been the exception. What about the other areas of life? Did it have an impact there?
JEALOUS: Certainly. I mean, just the fact that we can like, hop on a plane and not think about the fact that we used to be forbidden from many airports or, you know, relegated to different flights. We can get on a train and not be stuck in the Negro car. We can drive cross lines. We can work for any corporation we want to. Obviously, employment discrimination is still a reality, but when you look at just the way that life has normalized and so many barriers have been removed, much of that, if not all of it, goes back to Brown. Brown is a great success, but if the target of Brown, if the intention was to make sure that all children have access to a quality education and can go to any school they want to, we’re a long way away from that.
BOND: So, a success and a failure.
BOND: Who are the people who’ve been most significant in helping you become who you are — beginning with your parents but I want to ask about others, too.
JEALOUS: Sure. My grandmother tells great stories and she tells them over and over and over and over again, and they burn into your mind. And what that means is that you recall them sort of spontaneously. And her stories being the granddaughter of the man who in this state was born a slave and didn’t walk out of slavery until literally the end of the Battle of Appomattox — we actually have a newspaper when his wife turned 90 and did a story on her down in Petersburg. She talked about Senator Ed Bland. He was a born a slave in Petersburg or nearby and died a state senator here in Virginia. Co-founded Virginia State. And my grandmother would tell stories about his life that she’d gotten from him and from her grandmother. She would tell stories about her own experience challenging the white superintendent when she was a teacher to get a chalkboard that would actually retain the chalk so she could teach her kids. She would tell stories about going down to the jail in Baltimore where my father was one of the few white guys locked up for trying to desegregate the lunch counters and passing to pretend to be his mother and these stories —
And she would talk about the experience of walking down the street with my grandfather with the police officer assuming that she was white and knowing he was black and saying, “Ma’am, is this boy bothering you?” And her finally feeling comfortable enough to just sass back to the police officer, “Yes, but he’s my husband.” Tremendous impact on me and just sort of the dignity of being defiant — you know, seeing somebody who’s absolutely the most dignified person I knew, had been defiant her entire life and knowing that my family prospered.
I’ve also been really fortunate to have a lot of great teachers. One of the things my grandparents did, one of the biggest favors they did me, and my parents did the same, was to take me to dinner parties with them, you know, let me hang out in my grandfather’s bar downstairs while people passed through and talked about the issues of the day and to engage me in those conversations. There was a judge in Baltimore named Bob Watts. He was one of the early black judges in Baltimore. And he would come into my grandfather’s bar and predictably the first question he would ask me every summer, was, “Boy, what do you want to argue about?” And then you have at the age of five, having a six-foot black judge, you know, lean down and get in your face and say, “Well, what do you want to argue about?” pretty much scares the bejesus out of you. By the time I was seven, I was ready for him.
And the comfort I got in an early age with talking to people who are much older than me about my ideas, challenging their ideas, having conversations, is really what prepared me to lead at a young age because what you do become an organizer is just engage people in conversation and debate ideas with them and they’re often older or different or, you know — and so pulling me out of that comfort zone.
I think the other thing it did, and I had a conversation recently that sort of struck me. A man said to me, he said, “How many black male mentors have you had?” Just another black guy talking to me. I said, “About twenty.” He said — he said, “Wow.” I said, “How many have you had?” He said, “None.” And a part of that, I’m sure, in his mind it really was sort of an indictment of how we as black men treat younger men, thinking in his mind seeing somebody perhaps as competition and not — but I couldn’t help but think that it was — somebody had done a disservice to him when he was young in not teaching him how to learn from other people, how to engage them in conversation and how to help — you know, and how to get other people, frankly, to help you sort through the decisions that you have to make about the path that we all have to ultimately take by ourselves, you know, through life.
So, I’ve been very pleased, whether it was Charles Tisdale in Jackson, Mississippi, the publisher of The Jackson Advocate, whether it was Charles Hamilton who taught me poli sci at Columbia and co-authored Black Power with Stokely Carmichael, whether it’s Dr. [Ronald W.] Walters here with us today when I was twenty and kicked out of college. I went and just found him with some other students when he was at Howard University teaching poli sci, and he sat us down and explained to us what our responsibilities were, to lead. And to not wait until we were old and gray before we decided that we needed to lead, but what we needed to do right then. I’ve just been very fortunate in that respect.
BOND: You began talking about teachers in the lower grades. What experiences did you have with mentors or figures who pushed you and pulled you in a particular direction then?
JEALOUS: You know, quite frankly, I — I mean, I had some good teachers, a good science teacher here, a math teacher there, who encouraged me. For whatever reason, I was also highly confrontational with teachers when I was a kid, and there’s a librarian back home where I went to grade school who — she tells the story — she’s now been celebrated as an expert in diversity in children books and she said that it started because I walked into her library when I was six years old in the first grade and asked her for books on my mother’s family. She kind of looked at me like, "This child must be crazy if he thinks we have books on everybody’s family in this library." And so I went over and I said, “Well, you have books on my father’s family.” My father’s family has been in New England since the 1600s and, indeed, some of them were actually captured in Willard’s painting of “The Spirit of ’76.” The little drummer boy is one of my father’s cousins way back. And so she said, “Oh,” and she goes off. She knows my mom is black. She says, “Oh, we have a book on George Washington Carver, we have a book on Harriet Tubman,” and I said, “Look, I don’t want the peanut guy or the railroad lady. I want to know something else.” And she realized that all I was asking for was just a book on some other black person besides Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver and so she made sure that there were plenty of books and I guess that was my first protest.
BOND: And it was successful. What about Henry Littlefield who influenced you to go to Columbia?
JEALOUS: Yeah, Doc was great. Doc really taught us — he was a man who had grown up poor, you know, white poor in, I think, Brooklyn or the Bronx, who had sort of a bit of class rage in him because his — his father’s brother had been able to go to college and had done better than his father had and employed his father working in an asbestos plant knowing that asbestos would kill his own brother. And in Doc’s mind, he was never quite sure — when we two talked about this — whether it was just simply that his uncle understood the necessity of having a job at that point in the economy and there really were no other options or whether he was just so callous. I mean, it was a — you know — who had contracted polio while at the Olympic wrestling camp and had defeated it, simply because of his physical strength, that he could lose that much muscle and still walk, had gone on to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps and had ultimately discovered his passion was teaching history and was also a pretty good actor on the stage for school plays. He was just this tremendous Renaissance man and a person who loved life and who loved justice and he taught us to believe that history lived and that we could impact it. And it was him and Bob Watts who convinced me to go to Columbia. I wanted — I was interested because I wanted to be like Doc and Dr. Littlefield was my hero. It was Bob Watts, however, who told me I had no choice. I told him I’d been admitted to Columbia. He said, “Well, then you have to go.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because you want to be civil rights player, right?” and I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, Jack Greenberg is the dean so that’s where you’re going to school.”
BOND: And Jack Greenberg is —
JEALOUS: Jack Greenberg was Thurgood Marshall’s sort of handpicked successor at the Legal Defense Fund, former head of the LDF.
BOND: And he was dean at Columbia College.
BOND: What about Carlton Long, who — well, what about Carlton Long?
JEALOUS: Carlton was my first black male teacher. And it was the one of those things you don’t really realize what you’re missing until you have it, you know what I mean? You’re just sitting there and you’re looking at this man and he’s brilliant and he inspires you to just sort of think about your own potential and he taught me political science and theory. And he was sort of this kind of Paul Robeson-esque figure — booming voice, kind of athletic presence, very forceful and so when he talked about philosophy that was three thousand years old, the whole classroom paid attention. And he pulled me aside at the very end of the first semester. I had been helping him — I think that was the semester when he recruited me to help him with what became Black Men for Anita Hill.
And he said, “You know, Jealous, I think you would be a great candidate for the Rhodes Scholarship. I just came back a year ago.” And I said, “Well, have you seen my grades?” And he said, “Yes, you’ll have to improve those, but there’s time.” He said, “Let me guess. You went to public schools, didn’t you?” I said, “Well, yeah, you know, through the 8th grade.” He said, “That’s long enough. I bet that they told you that an A was excellent and a B was good and a C was average, a D was falling behind.” I said, “Yeah, that’s right.” And he said, “You’re getting a lot of B's, right?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “You think that’s good?” I said, “Well.” He said, “They lied to you.” He said, “Here, in the Ivy League especially, because we have this thing called grade inflation, in the Ivy League, especially, and an A’s on target, a B’s falling behind, a C is an F.” It radically sort of altered the way that I thought about my own academic achievement and my own potential and it would be some time before I could really put it into place.
I ended up getting involved in a lot of student protests at college and community service and athletics and things that sort of kept me out of the classroom, but when I came back from having been kicked out and working in Mississippi, my friends were gone and I really thought out what I wanted to achieve in the last two years of college, I decided I wanted to be able to pursue the Rhodes Scholarship because Carlton Long had put the seed in my brain at that point four years earlier and it had sort of grown into an ambition. And I remember what he said about grades and I literally — my grade point average went from being 3.2 for the first two years to above a 4.0 for the last two years simply because he set the bar higher than anybody had set the bar before.
BOND: And what about Father Bill Starr?
JEALOUS: Bill was a John the Baptist on campus. He had come to Columbia’s campus in 1965 and become sort of the spiritual leader and he and Rabbi David Saperstein are very much peers and they were both spiritual leaders of kind of anti-war protests with the Berrigan brothers and so forth, and he — but he had been on campus, and he nurtured a group of students who spiritually were very committed to the new commandment — whether they were Christians or not, and most of them were Reformed Jews — but whether they were Christians or not, the notion that really the commandment above all else is to love your neighbor as yourself and whose politics very much flowed from a judgment based on “Are we being treated with dignity? Are they being treated with dignity?” and so Bill, and as somebody who would also become a protest leader, who was often at odds with the administration and was dealing with stresses at home and whose grandparents couldn’t wrap their minds around the fact that their child’s one of the first students suspended from Columbia in over twenty years, he was somebody who really encouraged me to develop, I guess, a spiritual base to sustain myself. And it was — when I found myself in Mississippi, working as a journalist, getting death threats, I really came back to prayers and scriptures that we discussed with Bill as he allowed us to see the Bible as just a place of refuge for people who were committed to social change.
BOND: Do you remember specific events, either historical or personal, that were critical to your understanding of American society — that’s to say even events from the civil rights movement or events in your neighborhood or events in your family, things that made you think differently or think more critically about American society and the role you might play in it?
JEALOUS: Yes. And more critically of American society, frankly, just stories about the events surrounding my parents’ wedding were transformative, in my own thinking, because it made it — your parents, to a child — really they become the most beautiful people you know, everything. And to find out that my father’s uncle had driven down to where they were studying in Vermont to officially disown him on behalf of my father’s grandfather, to explain to my father he really did believe that my father loved my mother, but that if life had taught him anything, a man could love many women and that if he wanted to stay in the family, he needed to get out of love with my mother. To find out that they weren’t allowed to get married in my mom’s hometown of Baltimore at the family church, St. James Episcopal, but rather had to get married in Washington, D.C., because it was illegal, and that some people apparently pulled off to the side of the road when the caravan of wedding cars was making its way back from D.C. to Baltimore because they mistake it for a funeral procession. They just weren’t used to seeing sort of, you know — whatever, a limo and a bunch of cars and it not being a funeral procession. You know, or that my parents had to ultimately had to find to a place where they would be accepted to live because it wasn’t clear they’d be accepted either in Maine or in Baltimore or in San Diego where they moved to first at that time.
It definitely made discrimination feel very, very personal, and I think more ubiquitous and overwhelming, just all the things that were involved in that, than anything I experienced myself — you know, as a child, you experience those, a person following you around the five-and-dime or whatever, but you just pitied the person who followed you around the five-and-dime. This made it feel like much bigger -- the laws and a loss of wealth and everything.
My parents also took me to protests and they talked to me about protests they were involved in the 1960s. I remember my mom talking about the experience of making her way down to tent cities in Tennessee where black farmers had been pushed off of land and made homeless and had to erect tent cities on the farms of the blacks who actually owned land because they had demanded the right to vote and what it meant to have to, you know, hide to evade the Klan to get down there and to get back, you know, bringing them supplies.
And, you know — finally, I guess it was Jesse Jackson’s campaign. I got very excited. It was a time between Jesse Jackson and Doug Wilder becoming governor of Virginia, in the state that my family is from, that just sort of captured my imagination about what might be possible for my generation and what our cause was. And the experience of being fourteen years old and putting together a team of folks who registered thousands of people to vote and helped convince a county to support — that was predominantly not black, you know, white, Latino and so forth — to embrace Jesse Jackson. It took him from seventh in the polls to second in that county. That was the first thing that gave me a sense of my own potential, if you will, for leadership.
BOND: Very quickly, in any of your school experiences leading up through Columbia, were you active in student politics, student government, have any of those kind of leadership positions?
JEALOUS: Yes, certainly. At Columbia, I ran for student council. So the first real protest that I led I had actually put — like every student council person, I put on my best Oxford and my best pair of pants and walked over with a delegation of students to convince the University Senate that they should not abolish full-need financial aid nor need-blind admissions. We found ourselves locked out. And we ended up taking fifty students and turning it into eight hundred-plus into the classrooms and climbed in through a second-story window. But prior to that, it had all been Key Club and Junior Statesmen and Model U.N. and all the things that kids who sort of yearn to be in the establishment do, to prepare themselves.
BOND: What about non-school activities like Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts?
JEALOUS: I was in the Boy Scouts for a very short period of time. I had a Scoutmaster in California who was from Alabama — and I was the only black kid in the Boy Scout troop and it felt like that was an issue, but I also frankly had a father who was from Maine and who took me on adventures in the outdoors — and, you know, bouldering and hiking trips — that were way more exciting to me than anything than that local Boy Scout chapter was doing.
BOND: It’s surprising to me to have sat here and heard so many people sit where you sit and say that the Boy Scouts were a tremendous influence on their lives.
JEALOUS: Boy Scouts are huge. I mean, I look at my father-in-law, for instance. His father — there’s two things that — three things that are said about his father. One is that he desegregated the town of Donora, Pennsylvania’s restaurants by himself with a pistol as the head of the Negro Social & Political Club. The other is he was a steelworker with a sixth grade education. And the third was that he was Scoutmaster to a whole group of Boy Scouts who went on to get Ph.D.s, to become judges, to — like my father-in-law who was a dean of the University of Pittsburgh for thirty years — you know, really sort of be pioneers in their fields. The Boy Scouts is a great institution, but unfortunately, it comes down to the Scoutmaster.
BOND: Yes, I would think so.
BOND: What led you to choose your career? Now, in your life, you’ve held a number of positions — in your short life — but almost all of them are in the social justice field and that’s unique, I think, for people who’ve sat in your position as NAACP head. They’ve come from a variety of backgrounds. But how did you get set on this path. What is it? Is it everything that led up to taking this first job that led to what you are today, or — ?
JEALOUS: You know, I — again, between my grandmother’s stories and my parents’ stories without pandering, sort of events like Eyes on the Prize, my imagination as a child and increasingly as a teenager was very much captured by the continuity of social movement in this country. And being born just before the Bicentennial, a lot of my childhood stories were my father talking about, kind of, you know, in the oral tradition of his family, talking about what the American Revolution meant to the people who participated in it and his family had been also leaders in the women’s suffrage movement and had both been witch burners and founders of the Unitarian Church. You know? So, two ends of American Christianity, right?
And so both from his stories and from my grandmother’s stories, it literally went from slavery through Reconstruction through Jim Crow and right up to the present moment, there was just a notion that there was nothing more noble that a person could do than to help finish the American experiment and really create a pluralistic democracy that worked for everybody.
There was also, and especially in my grandmother’s stories and my mom’s kind of spirituality and some of the conversations with Bill Starr, a notion that we were surrounded at any given moment by our ancestors, that there was a indebtedness that wasn’t simply whatever you chose, however you chose to perceive it, but that there were actually real spirits that were judging you. And that sense — sort of metaphysical sense — of sort of responsibility and possibility, that on the one hand you had to continue the work that generations had started and on the other hand, that great changes were possible, led me to a place where I really have considered no other path. I mean, it’s just — I just kind of looked for how I could just help change the world for the better as quickly as possible.
BOND: And I know at one time in your life you wanted to be a lawyer and you decided against that.
BOND: What made you change?
JEALOUS: Because all the cases that I worked on when I was at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — summarizing depositions for lawyers or even dealing with mail from inmates who might become members of plaintiffs or organizing plaintiffs in Harlem — all the cases were older than I was. And I felt like I’d been sold a false bill of goods, you know. These stories about Thurgood Marshall and "then there was the decision and all was good,” and the combination of finding out that Brown v. Board was still an active case in the early 1990s because they were simply trying to enforce it in Topeka or dealing with death penalty cases, working as an organizer in a death penalty case that was nineteen years.
What I ultimately stumbled across when I was invited by a Legal Defense Fund lawyer to organize on a case and the pace of good decisions by the courts sort of quickened in that particular case, and then went down to Mississippi where the governor was trying to shut down a black college and turn it into a prison and we were able to keep the school open. And the lawyer very much credited how we had changed public opinion was that we could impact the court of public opinion much more directly, much more quickly, and could often hasten the pace of change in the court if not change the course entirely and that’s part of what — that’s a part of the theory I’ve brought to work at the Association. We just had the victory in the Troy Davis case.
BOND: I was thinking just about Troy Davis.
BOND: Tell us about Troy Davis.
JEALOUS: So, Troy had been on death row since the early 1990s, for about eighteen years. He was put there by nine eyewitnesses — no other evidence, no physical evidence. In those eighteen years, seven of the nine have recanted, and six more eyewitnesses have come forward to say that one of the two who has not recanted is the actual killer, as do many of those seven. So you now actually have more people saying that one of the two people who put Troy Davis on death row is the actual killer than you had people saying that Troy was the actual killer and, again, seven out of nine of those have recanted.
Well, our lawyers, the lawyers representing the cause of justice and Troy Davis, said that there was a one percent chance that even given all of that, Troy Davis would even be given a hearing of the evidence because he had exhausted his procedural guarantees under the ’96 Effective Death Penalty Act and that the Supreme Court did nothing like this and had not ordered a new hearing of the evidence for anybody who had exhausted their appeals in more than fifty years. And so we decided rather than hiring additional investigators or investing in a legal strategy, that we would do a big media strategy and a local community organizing strategy, the local community organizing strategy to focus on the district attorney, our local NAACP folks. One of the advantages of the Association, you don’t have to do all the work by yourself. You call the state conference president, he calls the local president. The local president goes over and talks to the state conference president, to the D.A. The D.A. says, “Look, I’ve heard from people in the Netherlands, I’ve heard from people at Emory University, how outraged they are by the case. I haven’t heard anything from anybody in Savannah." So we put 12,000 petitions on his desk within two weeks, and in the same time, we went around — went and met with the publisher of the local — the shorthand would say the local white newspaper, the mainstream daily that historically had been a segregationist rag, but obviously has changed its colors in recent years — but who still had only covered this case as a cop killer case for the last eighteen years. We sat down with the publisher and the editor and the coverage improved and they covered the petitions going into the D.A.’s office.
At the same time, we did a national strategy from Bill Maher to NPR and everything in between and we knew that public opinion probably wouldn’t impact the Justices but it certainly would get the attention of their clerks and the fax machine there at the Supreme Court with all these habeas appeals coming in — and they typically kind of just go into the trash can — that if we could get, if you will, just sort of capture the imagination of people in their twenties in their country who cared about social justice, people like Supreme Court clerks, that maybe one of them will just grab it from the fax machine and walk over to the boss and have a conversation.
Well, in mid-August, we got word that a decision was likely to come down. It scared the bejesus out of us, because the Supreme Court wasn’t supposed to say anything until around September 30th. And oftentimes, we hear about something in August, especially a civil rights case, it’s just something that they’re clearing off their docket and they’re basically deciding against you. And so, we kind of waited there with baited breath and we won. We won 6-2 with Roberts and Alito on our side. And the lawyers — I mean, we’re all very proud of them and they’re very proud of the work. They did great work — but they couldn’t explain it without explaining the change in the court of public opinion.
BOND: Your experience as a Rhodes Scholar, you describe it as enlightening, but what did you draw from that?
JEALOUS: It was enlightening in that it was demystifying. You know, I had experienced at the end of my time there where I was admitted to U.C. Berkeley’s Law School, Oxford’s Business School and Seminary without submitting any applications or even taking a test. They were just conversations. Now, granted, I happened to call U.C. Berkeley’s Law School and they just figured out they were going to have one black student for the second year in a row — but literally, the conversation went, “Hi, is this the Dean of Admissions?” He said, “Yes, sir.” I said, “My name is Ben Jealous.” “Yeah, I know who you are. One of the professors called about you.” I said, “Yes. Well, anyways, I missed the deadline for the global LSAT. I thought it was the same as the domestic one. I was looking at the wrong website and I just need to know if you would accept a later submission of my LSAT scores?” He said, “Hold on for a second." He said, "You’re admitted.” I said, “Pardon me?” I said, “What about the application?” He said, “By all means, fill it out before June, please, if you will.” I said, “well, what about the LSAT?” He said, “By all means, you need to take that, too, before June if you can, but definitely before you start.” I said, “Really?” He said, “You will have the package next week.” And I should’ve saved this for my children. It was years later when I really focused on just how remarkable it is to be able to get into law school, but —
And the other conversations were similar. Again, Bill Starr had really had an impact on me and I ended up spending the summer when I thought I was heading off to law school working with him and with another Episcopal priest, and so at the end of it — I had been toying back and forth all through college, whether to be a lawyer or a priest — I said, “How long would it take for me to become a priest? How long once I start seminary?” Because I thought maybe I would do both or something. And he said, “Well, why don’t you talk to Father Castle.” So I went down the hill to talk to Father [Robert W.] Castle. He was one of these other kind of white radical priests in Harlem and he said, “Why don’t we call the Bishop?” So, he called the bishop and the bishop told him it would take three years and he said, “Ben, would you just excuse me for a second?” I said, “Sure, Father Castle,” and I stepped outside his door. He cussed the bishop a blue streak. Then he opened the door and he said, “Come back.” He said, “The bishop said you can start in three weeks if you want.”
So it was this notion, you know, because when you’re a black kid growing up in this country, a kid with working parents growing up in this country of any color, all of the hoops to get to where you want to go you take very seriously. You contemplate every leap through the next hoop and to know that just for some people, they hit a point in this society where the establishment just opens doors, was demystifying to say the least.
It was part of a year for me that was just simply exceptional. I had worked thirty hours a week all through college in the Legal Defense Fund. Jack Greenberg had arranged for that to be my work study job. It wasn’t like I was able to intern. I was getting paid ten bucks an hour and needed the money. And being able to spend a year doing an accelerated master’s degree program where I didn’t have to work or I could go to the movies as much as I wanted, where I could read as many books as I wanted and not be thoroughly exhausted because I’d worked thirty hours was wonderful, but it often — it ultimately what made me feel like I was itching to get back to the States because for whatever reason, while I’m very sympathetic and often fight on global issues here, I really don’t feel any need to be involved in the affairs of any other country. I want to make this country work. And so at the end of that summer, I ended up starting my year of discernment with the Episcopal Church, moving into a single-room occupancy building for multiply-addicted people with HIV that I was helping to manage working with the priest and I guess it was sort of — to me, it was like this spiritual antidote for the decadence of Oxford, but it was still a great year.
BOND: Look back over your relatively short life. Is there a point where you began to think of yourself as a leader?
JEALOUS: Yeah, I mean, it was really at — in some ways the Jackson campaign was an experience, but I stuttered horribly. I would write all my speeches and I would try to read them and I would just — it was painful for the audience, it was humiliating for me. So it’s hard for me to think of myself as a leader. In my teenage vanity, I look at the photos in the paper and think I look pretty good. But I knew that the still photo was very kind and we saw that videotape. It’s a very different experience. At —
BOND: Let me stop you just for a second. So, prior to that, in high school, in grade school, although you never thought of yourself —
JEALOUS: No, I was the short stuttering black kid in the white school. I mean, I was exceptional and sort of on the outside in every sense. I was both the — I was the shortest person in my freshman class. A young Japanese lady, Kay Gatanaga, was a good friend of mine. She was like half an inch taller than me and I can remember — she was 5’ 2”. I was 5’ ½”. Senior year, I was 6’4”, she was still 5’2”. I’ll never forget Kay looking up at me and saying, “I used to be taller than you.” And all those things — and I’d also skipped a grade so I was a bit younger — just made me feel sort of on the outside, but when I got to college and I was tall and I was on the crew team — and the Gulf War broke out. And I — when you’re working twenty, thirty hours a week and you’re rowing crew twenty-eight hours a week, you don’t really have — and you’re going to class, you drink a lot of coffee and you don’t have much time for anything else, but I got a call from a friend back home who it looked like he was going to be activated.
One of my best friends had gone into the Reserves and I had gone off to college and it was just like — it was sort of like my father’s nightmare is coming back, right. One of the things when you’re a child of the ’70s, you grow up with all the Vietnam War back and forth. My father had been a conscientious objector. He had registered me as a conscientious objector when I was five because Carter started talking about the draft again, and he talked about the pain it caused amongst his friends, that some were killed in Vietnam and stuff and here we were, it’s like the children of the Vietnam vets turn eighteen and all of a sudden — I mean, literally the Gulf War started on my eighteenth birthday, started January 17th. I turned eighteen on the eighteenth, and I found myself at an all-night protest downtown, trying to shut down the Brooklyn Bridge and three students ended up — two or three students ended up jumping off the Bridge because somehow a driver got through the police barricade on the other side and just came plowing into the crowd. And to this day, I don’t know whether those students died or lived. I know they fell about seventy feet and there was conflicting accounts. And it just —
And I was towards the front of the march and it just — it was one of the most devastating experiences of my life. I ended up walking all the way back from the Brooklyn Bridge to Columbia. I get back on Columbia’s campus, and a couple of weeks earlier, I had been harassed there, about a week earlier, by an FBI agent who was looking for Iraqi students. He thought I looked vaguely Iraqi and I went off on him. By the time I lectured him about my family’s involvement here from the 1600s, he was just apologizing. I gave him a lecture on white privilege because he said his family had been here for less than fifty years, and so he just apologized. But I ran into a group of students who said that they were going downtown to do a sit-in in front of the FBI Building to protest the racial profiling of students on campus and I said, “Great,” and I ended up spending my eighteenth birthday in jail, but coming back to campus as sort of one of these heroes, right, who’d been to jail in the protests on the Gulf War and kind of being thrown up there to give speeches and having no time to write them because I’m working and I’m going — and I figured out I could give an extemporaneous speech and it was the first time in my life that I felt like, well, perhaps I can lead people and convince them of something.
BOND: First time? Now, remember, you’re fourteen and you’ve run this voter registration campaign. I mean, to me, that’s exercising some kind of leadership.
JEALOUS: Yes, it was, and it was successful and it gave me a sense of my own potential. But I guess in my eyes, leaders were ultimately people who could talk in front of folks, large numbers of people, and be understood and convince them. And stuttering — and stuttering horribly — made me feel like, and if you will, I could be a good sergeant but I couldn’t be the lieutenant.
BOND: But sergeants are leaders, too.
JEALOUS: Sergeants are leaders, too. Sergeants are leaders, too.
BOND: What do you see as the difference between vision, philosophy, and style? Can you tell me how these three interact for you? Vision, philosophy, and style.
JEALOUS: Style is something to me that you get from your grandfather or you get — you know, it's sort of subtle decisions that you make about how you comport yourself, how you treat other people, how you dress, how you manage, how you respond to crises or to tough situations. Philosophy is much more intentional, you know. Style, in other words, is an accumulation of little decisions you make throughout your life and then you just sort of put on autopilot. Philosophy is much more intentional. It’s a result of really wrestling often with making tough decisions and committing to a way of life, a way of being in the world, a certain set of risks.
Vision, in my experience, is what you feel compelled to do. It's in that sort of context of your philosophy and your style which are, I think, ultimately quite deliberate — you know, even if there're smaller things over time, it's decisions you make, philosophy in things you choose. Vision, you know, and calling to me are very spiritual and often spontaneous or inspired, and in my experience, come with a sense of being compelled. You know, that once you see something is possible -- you see that it's possible to, in your own mind, to save the financial aid program or it's possible to actually assemble a set of facts, perform the investigation as a reporter to exonerate a man who's being framed for arson in Mississippi or whatever. It's the vision that compels you to follow through. And that's -- you know, I think that's one of the things that has been great about this country is that there's a —
We accept a certain kind of prophetic tradition amongst leaders, white, black, throughout American history. The influence of, I don't know, religious zeal in this country is that we sort of tolerate leaders who are audacious, who put really big visions out there, and then who work themselves often to death pursuing them and we as Americans are willing to follow those folks and that’s one of the things that keeps us on the edge. I mean, you saw that with the Obama campaign. Clearly, Barack Obama had a vision. It was, I think, objectively no more compelling than Ron Paul's vision, but he himself was compelling in the way that he pursued it and in his individual belief in his vision. And that became infectious.
BOND: Has your vision changed over time? Is it the same now as it was when you were much younger?
JEALOUS: Yeah. And I mean, no — yes, it’s the same. It really hasn’t changed much. My philosophy has changed over time.
BOND: How has that changed?
JEALOUS: I’m just a much more I think tolerant person, a much more — aware of what — making a decision to pursue a certain path, to coalesce around a common goal takes from any specific individual. When I was a child, I really thought that things were quite simple. While I still — my vision for this country is a fairly simple vision for this country — elimination of barriers and increase, a sort of tightening of the social safety net. I see both— it’s a more understanding of people’s limitations when they won’t join me, and I’m also more aware of the fact that people — that people who are wrong in like, nine out of ten things are often right and willing to join you for that one out of ten.
I had an experience recently with an executive and we were talking about getting his company to change its policies with regard to formerly incarcerated people in their employment and he said to me, “Well, you know, if you get convicted, we take away your right to vote and that’s okay. But if we take away the ability for you to work, that’s outrageous.” I didn’t agree with him on both points, right? I think both are outrageous, but if he’s willing to work with me on the latter, we don’t have to talk about the former ever again. You know? I’ll find some other set of allies for that one. I wasn’t that way when I was a kid. I would cut you off at the first statement. But now my philosophy I guess has matured and it’s basically, look, the goal is what’s important, the team is going to change as we change goals, and that’s quite all right.
BOND: Some categorize the making of leaders in three ways. A, great people cause events, or B, movements make leaders, or C, the confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate for the times. Does one of these fit you or a combination of these three? Which is best for you?
JEALOUS: Great leaders make great events. What was the —
BOND: Great people cause great events. Movements make leaders. The confluence of unpredictable events creates leaders appropriate to the times.
JEALOUS: Well, I’d say the second and the third are appropriate. I very much feel like a child of a human rights movement in this country, both the civil rights movement of the twentieth century and the human rights movement that preceded it or movements that preceded it, including the movement to abolish slavery. I guess that’s the nurture, and the nature, the reality, is that kind of who your parents are and how they meet and who your teachers are and who you bump into, you know, at some point in your life are all — they’re either completely random or preordained, but whatever, you couldn’t — so that speaks to me, too, so confluence and coincidence.
BOND: Okay. Do you see your legitimacy as a leader grounded in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or in your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement?
JEALOUS: Both. You have to be able to —
BOND: Both? One more than the other?
JEALOUS: I think you have to do the latter to achieve the former. People have to trust that if we make a decision collectively that, you know, the CEO or the president or the leader or the chairman is going to respect that and be able to articulate that and defend that. At the same time, when you get in the room, those people expect that if they’ve elected you or chosen you or simply lined up behind you to lead on something, that you’re going to have a vision and you’re going to argue the point, that you’re going to push it, you’re going to challenge it, and that you show that same set of skills once the decision is made in pursuing the agreed-upon agenda. I think it’s both. I think that if you’re sort of too much — you know, if you’re not a company man at all, people find it hard to trust you and to stick with you for very long, but if you’re only a company man, it’s kind of hard to inspire folks.
BOND: Let me ask you a couple of questions about race consciousness. How does race consciousness affect your work? Are you a leader who advances issues of race or society or both? Is there a distinction between these? And is there such a thing as a race transcending leader?
JEALOUS: Yes, and I think we’ve had race — we certainly have had leaders who’ve transformed racism throughout out career. I mean, throughout our history, throughout the centuries in this country. Ed Brookes [sic] was just honored in Congress the other day and he was elected to the Senate I think, or at least went into office first in the 1960s in Boston. And people say, “Oh, it was just simply impossible,” and he transcended racism and to me, it’s really racism that defines race. I mean, race isn’t a scientific — you know, there’s no scientific basis, there’s just a cultural basis and the cultural basis is bias.
In my own life, I guess I’m both aware, very aware, that I’m black, and I’ve never wanted to be anything else. I mean, it was — race is both I think something that’s fundamentally passive. You’re just sort of born and there’s an understanding. In my case, the understanding was that my father knew that his children would be black when he married my mom, both by law at the time and by the fact that he was being disowned from his extended family. His brother and his mother stood with him but from his extended family, so — but it’s also something that you affirm and I can remember once being asked by four guys from a book they’d done on kind of young black male leaders. Each of us were asked the same question by ABC News and I was the only one who wasn’t shown. We were asked, “Why is it the toughest thing in America to be a young black man?” And the other three had answered the question as it was asked and I’d rejected the premise, and I said, “Well, considering the experience of my mother and my sister has taught me is that racism and sexism compound each other so I just don’t think that’s necessarily so,” I said, “but also frankly, I don’t know a black person who if you really gave them the option would opt to be white. There’s a lot of good about being black — jazz music, hip-hop, black women, whatever. There’s just a lot of good about being black,” and obviously that wasn’t fit for ABC News. But at the same time, race is extremely limiting in creating political consensus in this country. So in a lot of studies done that show if you lead with racial disparities, you kind of turn off and you harden people against you who not are in the affected group. And I think all of us really yearn to kind of live beyond race.
JEALOUS: I had an experience when I was in Mississippi, I was organizing students and the governor wanted to meet the college president and we had decided that we knew where we could find our white allies and they would be at Earth Day. So we sent students to Mississippi State way up past Philadelphia, up in Starkville, to recruit students at Earth Day. They ended up having a mob of students chant, “Get a rope,” and chase them off campus about eleven o\'clock at night. And by the time they got back to Jackson, driving on the same highway that had changed very little since [James] Chaney, [Andrew] Goodman and [Michael] Schwerner were kidnapped and killed on it — murdered — they got to the Waffle House in Jackson and they called me and they said, “We’ve got to talk.” So I went over to meet with my organizers and they explained what had happened and the whole time from the counter at the Waffle House, there’s this white guy staring at us and he —
You know, you have got to understand, if you toured around the South. I’m sure you’ve been to a Waffle House or two. Well, here’re these whites and blacks in the same place. It’s more a class cut than a race cut. They’re not sitting together but they’re in the same small little diner. Well, we noticed that this guy is staring at us and we’re the only black people in the restaurant. And he’s wearing a loose-fitting shirt and that’s significant because Mississippi is a right-to-carry state and you can carry a concealed firearm if you don’t have a felony with a hundred bucks. He keeps staring at us. We’re also aware that the Klan had put out death threats against us because Byron De La Beckwith had just been put in jail and we had announced we were having a mass march on the capital, and so they said that they would take out one of us because Byron was in jail. And so he comes over to — and this guy, he looked like a used car dealer but he looked angry. He kept starting at us. He had gold rings on every finger. He was wearing a shirt like my grandfather would refer to as a Cuban tuxedo. I don’t know if that’s right, but it’s a white shirt with a little bit of ruffles, you know?
JEALOUS: Yes, a guayabera, and he comes over to us and he says, “Y’all are the boys I’ve been seeing on television?” He leans right up in our face and we’re the only black guys in here and he might be packing a gun. “Yes, sir.” He said, “Excuse me for a second.” He puts down — in the Waffle House, they have these monstrous to-go bags, these grocery bags — he turns around, put it on the table. He spins around. Two of the guys sense he’s about to pull out a gun and they start to jump. I put my hands up like this and he says, “Well, I just want to shake your hand.” He said, “Because if I’d been born a nigger, I’d be mad as hell, too.” This guy’s said like “boy” and “nigger” twice. None of us are saying — this one’s from Chicago, one’s from New Orleans, I’m from California — none of us, the guys around the table are accustomed to be called nigger or boy by some by white guy.
He said, “Y’all stopped fighting back about twenty-five years ago.” This is 1993. He’s talking about ’68. He said, “I have no idea why. I’m so proud of you. I own a used car lot right down Highway 49. If I can do anything for you, you need money, you need — come see me.” I sent those same two fellows who’d been at Mississippi State, thought that they could find their allies and ran into a lynch mob or at least some kids masquerading as one, right out to his used car dealership the next day to get a check. For all of us, it was a lesson. I mean, it was God’s affirmation that we had allies that we couldn’t perceive easily, that they were there, that we weren’t crazy thinking that white people might take up this cause with us, but also reminding us not to be so foolish as to think that we could always predict who they were. And they got the check and we needed the check at that moment.
BOND: You know the greatest story about the Obama canvassers who’re knocking on doors with instructions to engage the homeowner in a little conversation and then say, “Who’re you going to vote for?” Knock on the door, a woman comes to the door, they chitchat for a minute and they say, “May we ask you who you’re vote to for.” She says, “I’ve got to ask my husband.” They had a little surprise when she says, “Joe, who we going to vote for?” and Joe shouts from the back of the house, “We’re going to vote for the nigger.” And they say, “Thank you so much.” And you’ve got to take your allies where you can find them.
JEALOUS: That’s exactly right.
BOND: Now, do you have a different leadership style when you deal with groups that are all black, mixed race or all white? Are you different?
JEALOUS: I don’t know that I’m different, I think I’m aware. See, I grew up in a small white town in California and I spent my summers in the black middle class in west Baltimore and you had to act differently. I mean, if I call a woman who was older than me back in California “Mrs.,” she thought I was insulting her and reminding her that she was old and had wrinkles. If I call a woman who was older than me on the East Coast by her first name, my grandmother would hit me in the back of my head, you know — not hard, but just, you know. And I had a lot of anxiety about that because my grandmother called them by their first name. I had to remember their last name. I didn’t see them for 10 months. It was a set-up.
So, I guess any — part of being an organizer is just being aware of who you’re talking to and what the kind of cultural norms are and whether you say “Mrs.” or whether you say “Jane” or whether you hug somebody or you shake their hand. But the message is the same and the sense of urgency is the same, and the, you know, sort of willingness to talk about uncomfortable subjects and to challenge people is the same. Right now, we’re at an historical moment where all of us need to be thinking about how we talk about issues of race because, one, there’s been a lot of black civil rights advocates who invested a lot of time doing a lot of communications strategy work and we’ve learned some things, but also because — simply because the bigots have been dying very rapidly, a certain generation of people who were really hardened, you know. There seems to be more people in the middle who could go either way.
I mean, you talk about the experience of workers in the primaries. I can never forget folks saying that in gauging independents in New Hampshire that they had a number of white men cry because they didn’t know — they just couldn’t decide whether they should vote for Obama or for McCain. Now, obviously, there’s a political spectrum that goes far beyond both those men, but they’re fairly radically different political choices. There’s a lot of people like that in this country, and so while I don’t change much other than greetings and so forth and decorum in how I talk to different groups, I am trying to figure out how to change how I talk to all groups because I do think that winning our goal in the NAACP, our final goal which is to really make manifest Lincoln’s dream of one nation for everybody, might require that we all change how we talk to everybody.
BOND: In Challenging the Civil Rights Establishment, the authors quote William Allen who writes, “There’s a danger in continually thinking in terms of race or gender. Until we learn once again to use the language of American freedom in an appropriate way that embraces us all, we’re going to continue to harm this country.” Do you think there’s a danger of divisiveness when we focus on the concept of black leadership?
JEALOUS: Not really. I mean, when we tend to do, we tend to do it in a sense that’s academic often, that’s historical — or we do it in a moment of crisis, when the crisis is really — like a police shooting, and there’s just sort of a notion of kind of cultural obligation that certain people show up. And I think that’s all fine. I mean, it’s no different than many other ethnic groups. There’s a lot of talk right now about all the Catholics on the Supreme Court, for instance. A number of them attended, I think, mass together recently.
What is dangerous is when we talk as if we’re only leading black people. We in the — the NAACP is not a black organization. It’s a very black organization, but it’s not a black organization. It’s a human rights organization, it’s a civil rights organization. Our mission is race neutral but very partisan on ending racism. And I think that’s the opportunity of the moment and really, it’s always been there and really in some ways what it’s necessitated by has been the utter secularization of progressive language. I read an article in The Nation by a Jewish guy in the mid ’90s who was outraged and he finally just needed to let progressive Christians know what he thought about them, that we had abandoned the metaphors and the mandates of the Bible in our speeches ever since King had died. In his mind, that’s when it stopped. I don’t know when it stopped. I know in my entire life it hasn’t been very present. There’s been a very sort of conscious sort of secularism. And he said simply, “Look, this is the most powerful vocabulary that we have in this country. This is how Southern county judges with sort of what might be called socialist leanings were able to be extremely powerful political figures because they would refer to the lexicon of the Bible and the mandates of the Bible and they were seen as therefore great Christian men and not political scalawags.” And he said, most importantly, I think, to the secular argument that, “I was never offended when Dr. King spoke from the perspective of being a Christian. If anything, he affirmed my perspective as a person of faith. It was always understood that my faith was different than his, in some ways connected, but that what he was talking about were the sort of the universal truths contained in the great religious works inside and outside the Abrahamic tradition.”
That’s — if we do anything, we have to give ourselves permission to remind people that Jesus only gave His followers one commandment. It was to love your neighbor as yourself. And everything else is conjecture — what Paul said, or Corinthians, whatever, is conjecture. And to challenge people to make that manifest. Yes, what will Jesus do? You really only have one thing to refer to which is — you know, and he talks about it I think in Matthew when he talks about the story of the Good Samaritan. This goes back to, are you treating your neighbor as yourself? If you’re not, probably what you’re about to do is wrong. If we could get back to that place as progressives in this country, I think we could do a lot to advance a whole bunch of causes that are commonly referred to as wedge issues.
BOND: Do you feel black leaders have an obligation to help other African Americans and is there a point at which that obligation ends and one can pursue his or her own personal political ambitions?
JEALOUS: This, for me, I guess more is a matter of collective survival. The obligation that we all have, leaders or not, is to extend the ladder of opportunity. You know, my — the first member of my family to join the NAACP — Ed Bland, born a slave, died a state senator — very much believed and challenged his children that for every ounce of privilege that we gain this country you’re supposed to invest half an ounce in somebody who’s less privileged. And so I think any leader, any political leader who’s just sort of pursuing their own personal gain or getting what they can out of the world while they’re alive in sort of a vain or wealth-motivated sense, is scandalous if that’s what your leadership becomes about. I don’t begrudge anybody who accumulates personal wealth but there is an obligation to use that wealth to give other people, if nothing else, the same opportunity.
BOND: What do you see as your greatest contribution as an African American leader?
JEALOUS: You know, I think ultimately giving voice and winning a few victories here and there, whether it was helping to start an ultimately successful campaign to abolish the juvenile death penalty or the Troy Davis case — so individual cases and policies. To my generation’s pain and frustration that comes out of starting our lives being told that as the children of “The Dream,” you know — something a poet once called us, these kids who were born as and just after the great civil rights victories were being won — that the playing field was now fair, study hard, apply yourself, you’ll do well. And both finding that true for many of us — very much true for me, for instance — and yet having so many of our peers killed and sent off to prison. I mean, we came of age just in time to find ourselves the most murdered generation in this country, the most incarcerated generation on the planet and there’s a profound sense of betrayal in that and everything that goes with it, including the squandering of public resources and the failure of schools. And I think my greatest contribution has been to continually give voice to that sense of angst and frustration and the hope for the country that’s inside of it, the hope that we can get beyond this. If we can just get beyond this, then maybe we can really realize what our parents and our grandparents set out to truly make manifest for all of us.
BOND: Cornel West writes, “The crisis of leadership is a symptom of black distance from a vibrant tradition of resistance, from a vital community bonded by ethical ideals and from a credible sense of political struggle.” Do you think there’s a crisis in black leadership in communities today, and if there is, if you think so, what makes that so?
JEALOUS: Yes and no. I think that there’s a crisis in our communities that comes from the physical distance between the black middle class and black people who are struggling in their everyday lives. And it plays out in many ways, in some ways quite personal. There was a study done in the ’90s on the spike in black teen suicide and what it came down that it wasn’t the black kids in the inner city who had access to guns who were killing themselves more frequently, it was the privileged black kids in the suburbs who were lonely, who were more socially isolated than any group of black children had ever been because they were so far away from the sort of agrarian norm that either we experienced in the rural south or we replicated in the inner city, that they were just simply the most profoundly isolated, socially isolated group of black children ever born in this country.
On the other extreme is that, you know, you stand in central Harlem in the mid-’90s when I was an organizer, you didn’t miss white people. It wasn’t white flight you were concerned about. You miss middle-class black people. You miss the people that came in their big cars on the weekend to church and they got out of there as quickly as possible because they didn’t want to get mugged. And in that phenomenon is a certain disconnectedness and the danger at this point in our history is that if we don’t recommit, whether it’s to the NAACP, whether it’s to a black church in the inner city where our family has gone to historically, if we don’t recommit to maintaining that sense of connectedness, we’re only two generations — what the suicide study showed that was simply what was happening to black children in the ’90s had happened to white kids in the ’50s. We’re just two generations behind white families in sort of the nuclearization and suburbanization of middle-class families and the atomization of families so the poor cousins don’t know the rich cousins and when that happens, leadership fundamentally changes because the sense of obligation to advocate for people less fortunate diminishes when you no longer see those people as being part of your family and sharing a blood connection with you.
BOND: What kind of leaders does contemporary society demand? How will future problems demand different leadership styles?
JEALOUS: Society demands that leaders put race behind us in engaging the larger public and find ways to encourage society to do the same. We’ve made about as much progress as we can make in this country without moving beyond racism. You know, race and ethnic identity are very important — people’s sense of self and being grounded and connected to a broader community. But these silly notions that one group is more criminalistic or mentally inferior or mentally superior or pristine because of the color of their skin is ridiculous and we know scientifically it’s as ridiculous as hair color or eye color, and yet we still permit ourselves to fixate on it and for it to imbue our politics and our corporate hiring decisions. In this country, there’s been a study at Princeton, Devah Pager said it was harder for a black man with no criminal record to get a job than a white man with a criminal record. It should be deeply disturbing to everybody.
One of the best leaders I saw in encouraging people and leading people out of this tradition in my life was Jack Kemp. And I saw Jack give — I was aware of kind of all the things he had done as a football player, an early athlete and his comments that he’s never had any problem fighting for the guys that he used to have to shower with, and just talking about the humanity between football players and how it changes politics. But I saw him stand up in south central Los Angeles to a group of black folks and give a speech about our kids and he was clearly talking about kids just like, two blocks away at the local failing school — “Our kids, our kids, our kids” — and I’m standing there then as the head of the Trade Association of Black Newspaper looking at him going, “Whose kids are you talking about? Who’s he talking about? Does Jack have kids in south L.A.?” And then correcting myself, you know, of course, he’s talking about all — we’re all Americans, they are all our kids. It's struggle in my own life, but it’s something I think all of us, whether you’re a white Republican like Jack Kemp or a black independent Democrat like myself — I vacillate on those two — get frustrated with Democrats sometimes. We have to challenge ourselves, because race — the contours of racism in our society ultimately are things that too many of us find comfort in.
BOND: As a society, how can we foster the most effective leaders for the future?
JEALOUS: You know, I — one is by insisting that people learn how to lead before they learn how to manage. There’re a lot of people who — you know, we train them in Robert’s Rules of Order and we train them in sort of all sorts of management techniques and we haven’t forced them to figure out how to lead first, so I think we need to throw more of young people out of the nest. And that’s, you know — when I went to go see Jesse Jackson’s — when I went to the meeting, because I told my dad when I was fourteen, “Look, I want to go to this meeting that they’re having about Jesse Jackson’s campaign.” He said, “Sure, I’d be happy to take you. I was planning on going myself.” I was sitting there at the meeting and they’re saying, “Oh, and we need somebody to organize the high school students and help with the voter registration drive.” And, you know, they had a vision of having students really drive that and I was kind of looking around waiting. My dad said, “Ben, you’re the only high school student in the room.” I said, “Okay, I’ll do it,” and that was his way of just saying, you know, "Get out and just go do it.” But fundamentally, that’s a decision I had to make for myself and people need to make for themselves.
I think young people have an obligation. My pastor did a similar thing for me when I was nineteen and I was in Harlem and I was referring to myself as a student organizer and he said, “A youth organizer — when are you going to stop sort of qualifying the type of organizer you are?” And he took me out on a porch of the farmhouse that is our rectory at St. Mary’s Church in Harlem and he pointed to the 26th Precinct right across the street, the police precinct, and he said, “Son, depending on the crime, when you’re fourteen, they’ll consider you to be an adult. You need to understand that you’re nineteen and you are an adult. You aren’t a student organizer. You’re a youth organizer. It doesn’t matter who you might be organizing today, but you’re an organizer and you have the responsibilities to behave like one.” And, frankly, what he was talking about was having a bigger vision for society and not just being fixated on campus issues. And he said, “Now, let’s get back to the meeting.”
I think that we’ve developed all these systems for training people, young people, to be leaders and a lot of times, we’re just training them to manage. And leadership takes courage, both on the part of the young person and on the part of the chaperone or the mentor or whatever to just say, "Get out the nest, go do it."
BOND: Mr. Jealous, thank you.
JEALOUS: Thank you.