Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership Development: Choosing a Career in Social Justice

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.