Benjamin Jealous, former president and CEO of the NAACP, came to Ramapo College on Monday for a lecture sponsored by the Dean’s Lecture Series. He talked about a variety of topics, but his primary focus was to communicate to the audience his own experiences as a community organizer and a member of the NAACP.
He started the speech recounting the strides that still need to be taken, not only for racial equality, but for a proper solution for man-made climate change and injustices in general. After a broad introduction, he narrowed the lecture to his personal experiences starting with his 21 birthday party. He recalled that those at the party toasted to all their dead friends who didn’t make it to 21.
“Someone threw a toast for more men of color…to survive to their 21 birthday…the notion cut me like a knife,” said Jealous. “That someone would have their hope for humanity so degraded that their wish would be more of their race to breath past their 21 birthday kept me up at night.”
Soon after this incident, he went to his grandmother and asked her, “What happened? Weren’t we supposed to be the generation of the dream…weren’t we the ones Dr. King spoke of, that we would be judged only on the content of our character?”
His grandmother replied, “Son, it’s simple, we got what we fought for but we lost what we had. We gained the right to be police officers but we lose our safe communities. We gained the right to send our children to any school but we lost the right to assume they would be loved at every school we sent them to.”
Agitated by this response, Jealous followed his grandfather’s advice and listed all the things that frustrated him in this world. He narrowed this list down to six things, and then later to one thing: “to eliminate disparities and injustices,” which is what he eventually devoted his life to.
Jealous’s speech then jumped in time to his first big community-organizing experience in Jackson, Mississippi. The governor desired to close two historically black colleges and to turn one of them into a prison. In order to try an get media attention he needed 5 percent of the protestors for his march to be white, so he sent a few of his allies to recruit at Mississippi State University during Earth Day; however, his efforts were spurned when they were chased off stage as members of the audience shouted, “Get a rope.”
They then reconvened at a restaurant, where they met an old white man. Given the way he approached them, they originally thought he was a threat, however, he soon revealed he was one of their supporters. From this experience, Jealous learned the lesson of not assuming who your supporters would be. When he took this into account, they were able to achieve their goal and the governor failed to shut down the schools.
For the rest of his lecture he went on to discuss his future endeavors and participated in a question and answer section, where he talked about a multitude of issues, such as the future of racial equality and climate change.
Jealous’s speech received a warm response from those attending.
Freshman Robert Pieper was “inspired by his courage and bravery” and enjoyed when he talked about his experiences fighting the death penalty.
Freshman Joseph Conchtourri commented, “It brought out a important social issue and Mr. Jealous brilliantly pointed out that the root of social change starts with the students.”