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Friday, February 21, 2014

Benjamin Jealous speaks at Bowdoin College about status of race post Martin Luther King

Immediate past president of the NAACP Benjamin Jealous spoke today February 21, 2014 at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, as a guest of the Common Hour

Jealous began his career in civil rights as a community organizer.  

In a nutshell, his motivational talk blended recent civil rights history in the context of America's racial accomplishments and failures. More important, for the Bowdoin students, who may be community organizers in the making, Jealous created a positive drama out of some very challenging situations. In summary, Jealous explained how success in achieving interracial progress may often arrive in surprising ways.

His motivational talk explained his role in landmark issues where race was a factor. Two situations described the elimination of the death penalty for juveniles with the help of an accomplished activist assistant, and preventing 2 traditional all black colleges in Mississippi from being closed and one converted, instead, to a prison.

Benjamin Jealous stepped down from his post as CEO and president of the NAACP in December. He's the youngest president in the organization's history, he was leader of successful state and local movements to ban the death penalty, outlaw racial profiling, defend voting rights, secure marriage equality, and free multiple wrongfully incarcerated people. A Rhodes Scholar, Jealous is a graduate of Columbia and Oxford universities. He was named to the "40 under 40" lists of both Forbes and Time magazines, and labeled a Young Global Economic Leader by the World Economic Forum.

In a motivational talk to a capacity filled Pickard auditorium, Jealous spoke for an hour without benefit of notes while standing away from the podium. He recalled his underpaid community organizing work, where the challenges of making change happen often required advocates to work toward the common good by calling on, often, unlikely resources.

In opening comments, Jealous received applause when he criticized Maine Governor Paul LePage for his derogatory "kiss my ass" statement, made about the NAACP during his first year in office, when the governor didn't want to attend the annual Martin Luther King breakfast. Jealous explained how Governor LePage is a man who has benefited from the advocacy of the NAACP, evident when the organization was one of only two groups to openly oppose the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Maine, during the 1920s and 30s. At that time, the Ku Klux Klan was actively demonstrating against French Canadian Catholics.  

It was the NAACP working with the Knights of Columbus that fought the Klan during their dreaded acts of ethnic oppression against French speaking Roman Catholics. 

"Governor LePage would not be where he is today without the work of the NAACP," said Jealous to audience applause.

Although Jealous was energized in his often self deprecating presentation, his description about the challenge of eliminating racial tensions in America was less than optimistic. He especially targeted the cruelty of Florida's "stand your ground" law that regresses self defense common law by empowering anyone who feels threatened to resort to gun violence, rather than consider walking away from ambiguously threatening situation.

Jealous summoned future activists to resist the influence of experts and pundits to establish rules for social change. He described how support for often impossible situations sometimes arrives from unlikely groups and people. 

For example, a formidable and effective alliance to protect teenagers on death row succeed when activists engaged the support of pro-life groups.

Jealous spoke to a racially and age diverse audience at Bowdoin. Undoubtedly, his motivational speech touched the students in the audience. Surely, some of them will positively and eventually be the face of America's racially diverse future.

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