Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership Development: Rhodes Scholarship

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.