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NAACP turns to a leader from a newer generation

Benjamin Jealous was chosen amid divides over how to reenergize the organization.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 21, 2008

Ben Jealous: An executive replaces the NAACP's old guard.

Lawrence Jackson/AP

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Oakland, Calif.

The safe choice would have been a pastor or politician, someone with oratory chops and a lineage among the lions of the civil rights era. To the shock of many, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has gone with a fresh face for its next president.

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Benjamin Jealous, who at 35 has already headed a newspaper publishers association, Amnesty International's US human rights program, and a social-justice foundation, was named Saturday to lead the hallmark civil rights organization, the youngest person ever to do so.

His youth has excited the hip-hop generation of black activists and furrowed the brows of some of their elders, reflecting disagreement about where to turn to reenergize the NAACP – the black churches with storied spokesmen, or the burgeoning nonprofits and online networks with new forms of outreach.

"I think Ben is exactly what the NAACP needs," says James Rucker, cofounder of the San Francisco-based ColorOfChange.org. "There's management issues, and Ben brings real nonprofit management to the table.

"Ben doesn't come out of the black church, and some people will ask if he's paid his civil rights dues," he adds. "For folks like me, that means almost nothing. In corporate America you can't say, 'I'm losing money hand over fist, but I've been here a long time.' "

Mr. Rucker is part of a cadre of young civil rights leaders – including Jealous and black environmentalist Van Jones – emerging in northern California. And ColorOfChange.org exemplifies the new directions in civil rights work here. Rucker and Mr. Jones formed the website to raise funds and mobilize after feeling frustration with black leaders' limp response to hurricane Katrina.

"Our belief is that, especially in recent years, black political power has been more or less nonexistent, and Katrina was some of the best evidence of that," says Rucker. That power need not be restored through the black church. "It played a very important role before, plays a role today, but to think that it is the model or that things aren't different is to miss what's really going on."

The role of the black churches should not be underestimated, counters the Rev. Amos Brown, a NAACP board member based in San Francisco. He strongly opposed Jealous's selection over the Rev. Frederick Haynes III, pastor of a megachurch in Dallas with a 9,000-member flock. Mr. Haynes reportedly would not give up his pastorship if chosen. The vote split the board 34 to 21, Mr. Brown says, with chairman Julian Bond pressing for Jealous.

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