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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.

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"That's been our buttress, our hope, and our faith – the black church. However, under the leadership of Julian Bond, that relationship has been shattered, ignored, and fractured," says Brown, who led early civil rights actions in Mississippi."

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He says the organization has lost some 200,000 people, to somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 members today. Its also "financially strapped," noting the group's recent layoffs trimming the staff to 70 people from 119.

"You are going to bring someone on board who can't inspire somebody?" Brown adds. "Uh-uh. He hasn't led no movement, he hasn't led no cause where black folks can say this is where the man was. A leader is out front where the people can see him. Nobody knows Benjamin Jealous."

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown agrees that Jealous has not been a household name. "He's not any better known than Barack Obama was before he became senator from Illinois," he says. "I'm hopeful that Ben Jealous and whoever he brings with him can use the Internet and whatever methods to increase the membership."

He cautions against seeing the choice of Jealous as a slight to any group, including black churches. "The association did the best they could," he says.

A graduate of Columbia University and a Rhodes scholar, Jealous started his career as a journalist for the Jackson Advocate, Mississippi's oldest black newspaper. He rose quickly to become executive director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents 200 black-owned papers. Currently president of the Rosenberg Foundation in San Francisco, he will take the reins of the NAACP in September. His wife is a law professor at Santa Clara University. The couple has a young daughter.

His selection by the NAACP has electrified some younger black activists.

"He's 35, and it reshapes the argument that the NAACP hasn't been relevant since my grandfather's day," says Denisha Delane, a former NAACP youth leader. "I'm one of those who needs to renew my membership – I don't know if it's current or not. But immediately feeling this energy around what's going on, I need to turn it in."

She says the association doesn't necessarily have a problem reaching young people. The challenge is retaining them. Once members reach their early 30s, they are suddenly at once too old and too young for comfort, she says. Some lead busy careers and are looking for more flexible venues for pitching in when they can, she and others say.

The black church, too, has similar retention struggles, she notes, saying "There's not a lot of people my age in the pews."