Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and chief executive officer of the NAACP, strode into the media spotlight last month when he called on the Tea Party to “repudiate the racist element and activities within” its ranks.
He immediately became the focus of attacks from the right and emerged as a visible advocate for racial justice, following the announcement at the organization’s convention in Kansas City, Mo. The time was ripe. For about two years, Jealous, 37, has been working to earn his stripes as leader of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.
Among his favorite causes has been working with other groups to repeal mandatory sentencing guidelines for first-time offenders for possession of crack cocaine, which disproportionately affects African Americans. This week the effort received a victory when Congress approved a measure to reduce sentencing disparities for possession of powder and crack cocaine. He has also focused on defending blacks from racially charged attacks in the public sphere, most recently from elements of the Tea Party.
But in July he stepped on the third rail. Without gathering all the facts, he spoke out against USDA employee Shirley Sherrod, based on a deceptively edited video of one of her speeches at an NAACP event. Released by a right-wing blogger, the video appeared to show Sherrod making biased remarks about her dealings with a white farmer, leading to her forced resignation by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.