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The man who has become the face of the NAACP — from marches protesting the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin to vigils for death row inmate Troy Davis in Georgia — is resigning effective Dec. 31.
In an interview with USA TODAY, Benjamin Todd Jealous said the constant travel as president and CEO of the nation's largest civil rights organization has kept him away too much from his wife, civil rights lawyer Lia Epperson, and children, daughter Morgan, 7, and Jack, 13 months. He said he plans to make a formal announcement to his staff Monday morning.
"Leadership knows when to step up and when to step down," Jealous said. "This day I can say with pride that I'm prepared to step down and make room for the next person who will lead this organization to its next chapter."
Jealous, 40, said he is talking to a handful of schools within commuting distance of metropolitan Washington about teaching. He plans to continue work with civil rights colleagues toward raising money for a fund to promote black participation in politics. In a separate interview with USA TODAY columnist DeWayne Wickham, Jealous detailed plans to create an "EMILY's list for people of color."
The civil rights leader said he's satisfied that he will leave an organization in much better condition than it was when he took over five years ago. Back then, the Baltimore-based civil rights group was financially shaky and shouldering constant criticism that its aging leadership was out of touch. Now, the organization is solvent, social media savvy and its staff seems to be part of a new cadre of leaders — headed by President Obama — who are diverse, well-educated and visible.
"In the last five years, we've had double-digit revenue growth, we've spent five years in the black," Jealous said.
Under Jealous, the donor base has grown from 16,422 in 2007, just before he started, to 132,543 last year. Revenue has grown from $25.7 million in 2008 to $46 million in 2012. Out of a total score of 70, independent non-profit reviewing organization Charity Navigator gives the NAACP 51.42 for finances and 70 for accountability and transparency.
When Jealous came in at age 35, he was hailed as the youngest leader of the organization in its history, although some questioned whether he was old enough to serve, and the board vote approving him was close. As a lifelong activist, he was known in the civil rights community but not by the general public. Over the years, he changed that, appearing in public constantly, often alongside other civil rights leaders. If there was a major regional or national civil rights event, Jealous was often there with rolled-up sleeves.
Jealous has had bumps too. In 2010, he faced criticism when he condemned black USDA employee Shirley Sherrod after a deceptively edited video appeared to show her making biased remarks about her work with a white farmer. Sherrod's comments were actually part of a longer speech in which she discussed overcoming her prejudices.
Jealous grew up in California, the son of civil rights activists. He was suspended from Columbia University for organizing student protests but returned later to graduate, also becoming a Rhodes Scholar and earning a graduate degree from Oxford. He's worked as an investigative reporter for Mississippi's Jackson Advocate and was founding director of Amnesty International's Human Rights Program.
Jealous said a couple of instances reinforced that he needed to move to his next stage in life. His daughter reminded him he'd promised to stay in the job only five years (it was really something, he said, that he told her to appease her). In February 2012, he was two blocks away from home, heading out for a much-needed, non-travel week at the NAACP offices, when he got a call about the death of Trayvon Martin. He went back home, told his wife he'd be gone two days and wound up traveling to Sanford, Fla., on that case many times over the months after that.
NAACP board chairwoman Roslyn Brock said Jealous had worked through one three-year contract that the organization had extended by a year and was just beginning his second three-year contract.
"Truly we were surprised," Brock said of learning the news Wednesday. "We're disappointed that he's leaving at this time. He's five years in, and we were expecting him to be with us seven years, based on our agreement with him."
She said the organization understands. "We know his passion for the work, and we could hear the pain in his voice," Brock said. "We looked back over the five years. He has made a sacrifice. But he's left us in a place with a five-year strategic plan."
Included in that plan is the continuation of work to eliminate the death penalty and to register 50,000 new voters by Martin Luther King Day in January 2014.
Van Jones, host of CNN's Crossfire and former Obama green jobs adviser, said he has known Jealous since they were both student activists, Jones at Yale Law School and Jealous at Columbia undergrad. Jones said he liked the fact that the product of a plan the NAACP pushed years ago — to steer black Americans toward elite educational institutions — has helped return the organization to relevance.
"Ben Jealous really electrified the organization," Jones said. "You're talking about the oldest civil rights organization on the planet, and it was starting to show. The NAACP before Ben got there was financially in the red and politically marginal. Ben should be on the cover of every business magazine in America as foremost turnaround artist on the American scene."
Other civil rights leaders credited Jealous for reaching out beyond the groups that have traditionally worked with the NAACP and stretching old boundaries.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a group that advocates for gay and lesbian rights, said that when he assumed his role a little more than a year ago, Ben Jealous reached out and met with him on his first day on the job. Jealous was insistent that both groups work together, and Griffin credits Jealous with pushing the marriage equality measures that have passed in recent years, as well as strengthening previously weak activist ties between the black and lesbian and gay communities.
"Many times I've called him a modern-day civil rights visionary, and I truly think that is the only description that captures him," Griffin said. "He led the NAACP to embrace marriage equality but also transformed the national conversation of civil rights."
Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, said Jealous helped expand what's considered the civil rights agenda from the expected voting rights and death penalty cases to issues surrounding the closure of dangerous power plants, early childhood education and health care.
"He's been incredible in re-energizing the NAACP and taking the national operations to the next level," said Henry, whose group worked with the NAACP to create a fund to advance black participation in politics.
Because Jealous does not leave for four months, the organization does not yet have a plan in place for his replacement, Brock said.
Jealous suggested the 104-year-old organization might be looking at a woman president.
"I'm the 17th president of the NAACP and the 17th man. I do expect that the next president of the NAACP will be different in some way," he said with a small laugh.