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.
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.
"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."
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."