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NAACP head speaks on Obama era

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is in the process of "retooling" itself, widening its focus from civil rights to more general human rights, including effective law enforcement, quality education and financial security for black Americans, the organization's president, Benjamin Jealous, told a crowded Salomon 101 Friday afternoon.

Jealous, who took office in September and is the organization's youngest president ever, spoke as part of the Department of History's symposium, "Abraham Lincoln for the Twenty-First Century," which honored the Lincoln Bicentennial.

In an interview with The Herald before the speech, Jealous explained the evolution of his organization - which was founded 100 years ago last month in an effort to stop lynchings - using law enforcement as an example.

"We were founded to stop extra-judicial homicides - the killing of black men suspected of crimes without being properly charged," he said. "Fortunately, that has stopped, but at the same time, the undergirding aspiration (of the NAACP), which is to feel safe and secure in this country, is elusive because of high rates of homicide in the black community."

The organization is mounting a "big national campaign around effective law enforcement - ending racial profiling, ending police killing of unarmed civilians, dramatically increasing the rate at which murders in the black community are solved," he said.

During the lecture and the interview, he also discussed the organization's focus on moving past the desegregation battles of earlier decades and ensuring that all children have a high-quality education.

"We're one of the few groups in the country that's well positioned to advocate for the children, and we're in the process of revisiting all of our policies on education," he told the audience.

Jealous told The Herald he was interested in discussing President Abraham Lincoln's legacy and how it remains relevant today. "It's important at this moment for the country to reflect about Lincoln, his dream of a united country and what we still need to do to fulfill that dream," he said.

Jealous spoke to the audience at length about another Illinois politician and history-making president - Barack Obama. Though in the interview he asserted that "as a country, we'll never be post-racial until we're post-racism," Jealous, an early Obama supporter, discussed the significance of Obama's campaign and presidency as it relates to college students. "Young people need to really claim and to own this victory, because they were the ones who embraced this candidate first, who worked the hardest, and it was their vision and determination that made this possible," he said. "Students and young activists need to hold on to the invincibility that this victory has given so many of them. We need that optimism, that determined spirit and the skills that so many young people learned now more than ever."

He also stressed this moment in history's place in a larger, longer story. Students "need to recognize that they're part of a continuity of work that led to this moment, to understand that history and understand their place in that history," he said.

"The real victory is not transforming the face of the White House," he told The Herald. "The real victory is transforming the face of this country, and there's a lot of work that needs to be done."

In addition to discussing the roles of students themselves, Jealous talked about the responsibility that colleges and universities as institutions have to promote positive social change. "Institutions of wealth and privilege have a responsibility to the country as a whole. They play a vital role in defining the type of country in which we live. Students, faculty and alumni should always be vigilant to ensure that their university is inclusive and reflects the diversity of the country at every level."

Speaking to The Herald, Jealous said Brown should work harder to ensure this diversity and inclusivity. He applauded the intent of President Ruth Simmons' Committee on Slavery and Justice, but he criticized the lack of faculty diversity. "The small number of African-American faculty here in the history department is as disappointing as it is ironic, considering the wealth that built this university came from the trading and hard labor of black slaves," he said.

After the speech, Jealous fielded questions from audience members on a number of issues, including affirmative action, voting rights and gay marriage.

Of Proposition 8, which eliminated same-sex marriage in California, Jealous said, "We object to any attempt to validate the power of a simple majority to strip people of fundamental rights."

Allowing a "50-percent-plus-one" majority to take rights away from people sets a dangerous precedent, he said, particularly for an institution concerned with civil rights, like the NAACP.

Paula Kaufman '10, a former Herald contributing writer, said she was glad to hear Jealous speak and especially appreciated his answers to audience questions.

"I was happy that someone of his stature came to campus, but I actually got more from his responses to student questions than from the lecture itself. The audience asked really insightful questions," she said.


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