Benjamin Todd Jealous was a young community organizer in Mississippi when he got his first big lesson in leadership and organization.

The goal was to stop Mississippi from closing two of its traditional African-American colleges and converting one of them, Mississippi Valley State, into a prison. “We were planning a big protest,” said Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), who spoke at a recent Wharton Leadership Lecture. “We wanted to show that turning a college into a prison was not just anti-civil rights, but anti-American. It seemed a shame that this was going to be a protest by black Mississippians. In order for it to be effective, I knew we had to have some white liberals with us.”

He remembered thinking at the time that Earth Day was coming up. “Earth Day was perfect. We figured liberals would come out in their tie-dyes, and this would be a way to support our issue, too,” said Jealous. But despite targeting students and faculty at Mississippi State University, his organizing group wasn’t having much success.

Late one evening, he and his fellow organizers met at a Waffle House near the Mississippi State campus. They were the only African Americans in the restaurant. “Waffle Houses were mainly truckers and students, but this was near Philadelphia, Miss., where only a generation before, civil rights workers were found dead during a voting rights campaign, and where not long before, the head of the Shriners was also the head of the Ku Klux Klan,” Jealous stated.

Before they had even ordered, the table of young black men was approached by an older white man in a baggy shirt, with a sunburned face and gold rings on every finger. “He came up to us and asked if we were the ‘outside agitators’ he had been seeing on TV,” said Jealous. Given the way he was standing, added Jealous, it seemed like he might have a gun under that baggy shirt. The other African Americans wanted to leave, but Jealous didn’t move, and when the man put out his hand to shake, Jealous took it.

“Then he said this: ‘If I had been born a [black person] in this state, I would be mad as hell, too. I have no earthly idea why you have put up with it so long. If you need any money or a car, I own the used car place up the road. You come to me.”

The next day, the organizers went to the man and rented a car. “We thought we knew who our friends were — the tied-dyed students,” said Jealous. “Turns out it was the old man in the baggy shirt staring us down. I used that as an inspiration to stop making assumptions and start listening, which is the way to leadership. That prison was never built, and the colleges are still in existence.”

A Mission for the 21st Century

Jealous came to the NAACP at a down time in its history. Funding was low and membership was declining. Many thought it was an antiquated organization — its mission more in tune with previous generations than with the current one.

Yet according to the NAACP website, during Jealous’s tenure, online NAACP activists have risen from 175,000 to more than 675,000, and donors have increased from 16,000 individuals per year to more than 132,000.

Jealous began his career as a community organizer in Harlem in 1991 with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, worked as an investigative reporter for the Jackson Advocate newspaper in Jackson, Miss., and, over the past two decades, has helped organize successful campaigns to abolish the death penalty for children and to pass federal legislation against prison rape, among other initiatives.

His roots in the NAACP go back five generations on his mother’s side. His grandmother, now 96, told him when he came to her for advice after being asked to take over the NAACP in 2008 at the age of 35 — the youngest person to lead the organization — that he had to do it.

“I said to her, ‘You told us we would be the first generation not to be judged by the color of our skin or what housing project our mothers grew up in, [but that we would be judged] by the content of our character,” he said, quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “But I told her my generation was the most incarcerated and the most murdered.

“She told me that we got what we fought for, but we lost what we had,” Jealous said. “We got the right to be police, but lost the right to live in safe communities. So we still had much more to accomplish.”

Jealous, too, was somewhat skeptical that organizations like the NAACP, which were so vital in the era before and during the civil rights movement, were viable for his generation. He changed his mind just as he reached adulthood. “The rap was that all you needed to do was reap what the previous generation had sown. They had killed Jim Crow, so our job was to study hard and keep our noses clean, and things would be good.”

Meanwhile, he went to a friend’s 21st birthday party that was attended by many people who were students at Ivy League schools — Jealous himself graduated from Columbia and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in England — and had bright futures ahead.

“But then someone poured out libations in memory of each person someone in the crowd knew who had died or gone to prison,” said Jealous. Someone else then sardonically cheered that the group was merely celebrating that one more black male had actually survived until the age of 21. “I was in psychological trauma that anyone in this country could have their own group so diminished that they thought it an accomplishment just to be able to breathe at 21,” Jealous noted.

The point is, he added, that there are “bold, scary dreams” for every generation, and that they must dream them to accomplish them.

Finding Shared Interests

To lead under those circumstances requires, most of all, listening, said Jealous. “Your job as a leader, especially a leader of organizers, is ultimately not just to discern what the problems are, but also [to discern] what people believe the problems to be. Then you have to look at what the possibilities are to [bring about] change as quickly as possible. You have to be prepared to sit with people whom you disagree with 99 times out of 100 and find the one thing you can agree on.”

He recounted the time the NAACP was suing what he called “a very large retailer” over a number of complaints. The senior vice president of the retailer came to his office to see if they could “work out something positive.”

Jealous said he was standing firm, saying the lawsuits were still on, but that the NAACP was working on projects to get formerly incarcerated men back into the work force. The vice president then smiled and said there was nothing more that the company would like to be than the poster child for “second-chance” hiring. “Normally, you would have said that the moment this woman came in the door, you would chase her out,” said Jealous. “But you have to maintain your courage and propose something greater. You have to give the other side a chance to come to your” side.

In response to questions about the NAACP’s relevancy, Jealous maintained that from its inception, the NAACP has been multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Many of its founders were white and Jewish, and it has never shied away from any potential allies. Some of its chapters in the Southwest, for example, are made up almost entirely of Native Americans.

The NAACP’s original “big case” when it was founded in 1909 was to stop the lynching of African Americans in the South. It was an ambitious goal. “How crazy was that?” Jealous asked. “Yet even though we never really got a law, we were eventually able to shame the South so that, albeit 60 years later, you would never see a black, a Jew or a Chinese man dragged through the streets and hung on a tree or burned.”

He recently went to a meeting of the NAACP chapter in the Maine State Prison. About 200 inmates were in attendance. Only 90 of the prison’s 1,000 inmates were black, and only 50 of the 90 were at the meeting. “Even the president was white,” noted Jealous. “So I said, ‘What do I tell people on the outside about this?’ And [the president] said, ‘You tell them this. In here, we all have the same issues and there is only one organization that makes sure we are treated the same, and that is the NAACP.'”

If there is a major goal now for the NAACP, he said, it is to somehow stop the plague of violence and mass incarceration of minorities in the United States. A recent triumph, he added, was elimination of the death penalty in Maryland earlier this year — the only state south of the Mason-Dixon line to take this step.

Jealous also spoke about the importance of focus. “Never do what you want to do, but what you will do,” he said. “If you decide [on] a goal, you will get it done, no matter what, and then your life is a whole lot easier.

“Give yourself a week or a month, and make a list of what you want to get done, things that really tick you off,” he added. “If you can’t choose, then just close your eyes and circle one. Focus on that…. The day when it gets done will come a whole lot faster.”