WASHINGTON (AP) — Leaders of the nation’s largest civil rights group pledged to continue fighting for voting rights, health care, a higher minimum wage and immigration reform, even as the NAACP begins searching for a new president and CEO.
After suffering turbulent leadership changes and scandals in the past, NAACP board members said the 104-year-old group is poised for a smooth transition this time as it seeks to replace outgoing President Benjamin Jealous. He announced on Sunday that he would step down at the end of the year.
Chairwoman Roslyn Brock said the board is disappointed Jealous is leaving after five years but that the group remains energized on issues nationwide.
“The NAACP is alive, and it’s well,” Brock said. “We have a strategic plan in place that will help guide our work for the next 50 years.”
Brock said the NAACP’s board is forming a search committee to find someone to succeed Jealous.
Former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said there had been no indication at the board’s last meeting in July that Jealous would leave, but he added that leading the organization is an extremely difficult job.
“We’ve had our ups and downs over the years, but we’ve had a wonderful, wonderful steward for the past five years and he’s brought an enormous amount of energy to the NAACP,” Bond said. “We’re going to be much poorer without him.”
In a written statement to The Associated Press, Jealous vowed the transition to a new leader would be orderly and planned. “Their success will be my success,” he said.
When he was hired for the job in 2008, Jealous became the group’s youngest-ever leader at the age of 35. The job is unique in its intensity, Jealous said Monday, because “you commit to work 24/7/365 and spend half your year on an airplane and every minute working to advance the cause of civil and human rights.”
Under Jealous, the group worked to abolish death penalty laws in at least four states, opposed “stop-and-frisk” police tactics and stand-your-ground laws following the death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and embraced gay rights in a historic 2012 vote to support same-sex marriage rights.
Donations have increased from $23 million in 2007 — the year before Jealous was hired — to $46 million in 2012, he said. The group also said its donors have increased from 16,000 people giving each year to more than 132,000.
Jealous said he had been increasingly wrestling with the need to spend more time with his family. Several years ago, he told his daughter that he needed five years to do important work at the NAACP.
“I thought about that promise a lot. My daughter has reminded me every birthday since then,” Jealous said. “It just became clear during the month of August that I needed to go ahead and keep my promise to my daughter.”
The 40-year-old Jealous says he also wants to teach at a university and start a political action committee focused on promoting Black and Latino candidates, along with progressives of all races.
Jealous began his career as a community organizer in Harlem with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He was suspended from Columbia University in New York City after organizing student protests and went on to work as a reporter for the Jackson Advocate newspaper in Mississippi.
Jealous said during a conference call Monday that he signed a new contract last year that was negotiated to keep him at the NAACP for a maximum of three more years. He says there was a clause allowing him to leave sooner.
Several members of the group’s 64-member board told The Associated Press they were not surprised Jealous chose to step down and that he was leaving on his own terms.
Still, Jerry Mondeshire, the head of the Philadelphia NAACP and a national board member, said friction between Jealous and Brock may have led to an early departure.
“I think the combination of the strain on his family, and the ongoing friction, he decided to exit earlier,” said Mondeshire, adding that he was a critic of Jealous at first but that he was won over by Jealous’ fundraising and modernization of the NAACP.
Brock said she is not aware of any tension that drove Jealous out.
“As with any organization, you’re never going to have, with a 64-member board, everyone in agreement on any one issue at any given time,” she said.
Brock said the board devised a strategic plan with Jealous to guide the group for years to come.
“An organization that is 104 years old, it can’t be really about one person doing the job,” she said. “It has to really lie within the hearts and minds of those who believe in the mission.”
Jealous has been praised for boosting the organization’s finances and helping to stabilize it. In the year before Jealous arrived, the NAACP cut its national staff by a third because of what a spokesman described at the time as several years of falling fundraising revenues. Also that year, former NAACP President Bruce Gordon abruptly resigned after clashes with the group’s 64-member board.
The Rev. Morris Shearin, an NAACP board member and pastor of Israel Baptist Church in Washington, said leading such a vast organization requires navigating among many different personalities and issues.
“A young man like Ben — he was ready to take on anybody, everybody, anything if he felt that the NAACP should be about that,” he said. “In some cases, I would say that he got some resistance. In the end he would prevail.”
Rabbi David Saperstein, another board member, praised Jealous for holding the organization together amid divisiveness in the country and as the NAACP took on tough issues, such as the decision to endorse same-sex marriage. As the board debated the issue, Jealous said no one should be disparaged for their viewpoints, Saperstein, said.
“We were able to hold the organization together as those people understood that they may hold those views, but the majority of the members of the NAACP feel differently about it,” he said.
Board member Amos Brown, said the board did not pressure Jealous to stay on.
“At a time when people are talking about the need for the strength of and bolstering the Black family, it would be very inconsistent for us to try and pressure him,” Brown said. “I would put my family first. To do this job does require great sacrifice, a whole lot of travel, even subjecting your family to threats and all that kind of stuff.”
The NAACP board plans to meet in late October to plan for the leadership change.
Amid the coming changes, Bond said the organization’s role and relevance for the future remains steadfast.
“Nobody who belongs to the NAACP has any questions about its role,” he said. “Pretty simply, we fight white supremacy. That’s what we do. That’s what we’ve done for over 100 years. And that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Jesse Washington in Philadelphia, Eric Tucker in Washington and Matthew Barakat in McLean, Va.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press