By Verbal Adam | OBSERVER Correspondent
OAK PARK – Human rights activist Ben Jealous discussed his new book, “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free: A Parable of American Healing,” and more at Sacramento’s Underground Books in Oak Park on Feb. 20. The book was released last month.
Jealous was the youngest national president and CEO of the NAACP and is the first Black executive director of the Sierra Club. He is also a partner at Kapor Capital and a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at University of Pennsylvania Carey Law, where he currently teaches a course on Leadership and Racial Justice
Jealous took questions from OBSERVER President and Publisher Larry Lee.
Q: Tell us a little bit about where you are now professionally and how you got there.
A: First of all, it’s great to be here with you. This block seems like the Wakanda of Sacramento. Good job, Kevin [Johnson]. I’ve heard you describe it but it’s something else to experience.
We were young Turks, if you will, in the Black press a quarter century ago. It was in some ways that journey this book started. The stories in this book are from my years as a journalist in Mississippi at the Jackson Advocate, which is the Sacramento OBSERVER of Mississippi, but when you’re in Mississippi and you do what the OBSERVER does, you get blown up. [It happened] four times in the ’80s and ’90s. We were last firebombed in ’98, and riddled with submachine gun bullets in the early ’90s. I was so glad when I took over the trade association of Black newspapers to find out that I wasn’t the only young Black person crazy enough to invest a career in the Black press, which everybody’s been saying has been dying, but it’s not, and it’s thriving in a lot of places, and Sacramento is one of those places and, Larry, thank you.
I’m going to be taking over the Sierra Club on [Feb. 28]. That seems odd for a Black guy to run a green group. It’s never happened. There’s never been a major environmental organization led by a Black person in the United States. Despite the fact that Van Jones has been running around for 20 years saying that there is no green vote without the Black or brown vote because Latinos are number one and Blacks are number two, as far as being the base of the environmentalist movement that comes to supporting environmental regulation. It’s been about half a century since a major conservationist magazine [had a cover story hailing] the greenest caucus in the U.S. Congress. There was a photo of the Congressional Black Caucus. Big oil, big gas has been hip to that ever since then. They hired an army of lobbyists, matched them all up with the [caucus]. But the Sierra Club, the nice thing is, walking in the door, it is the most inclusive of all the major environmental groups. I can say it with some authority because I worked for another major green group when I was 21 and only lasted six months. I came in to launch a big national program that was a success. On my first day, the one Black executive put me in her office said, “How does it feel to work for a white organization? No, that won’t change anytime soon.”
And I went to the one Black executive over at Greenpeace who was sort of the ombudsman for us young greens. And I said, “Brother, whoa. It was my Black momma who wrote checks to that organization. Like, what are they talking about?” And he’s like, “Yeah, it’s a lot of work, man. You might want to go back to civil rights.”
And I did, but I never left the environmentalist movement. I started the first years ago. I was 15 in Monterey, California. You know, we were Black kids growing up around redwood. Trees like that exist in Northern California. Here we are. And my parents were kind of hippies and bohemians. I’d grown up going to civil rights protests. I’ve organized a lot since, but the first protest I ever helped organize was an anti-clearcutting rally here in Sacramento and my first order of business at the NAACP was launching our climate justice program. And the beautiful thing about Black folks is, like, we just want to know what the truth is. So when a lot of green groups felt awkward after Hurricane Katrina, after Galveston, after all those disasters, floods in the Iowa River, just walking in and saying “This is what’s going on, y’all, and this is how we stop it.” So when Sierra Club called, you know, I said it sounds like a fun challenge. It feels like coming full circle.
And honestly, when I heard in my ear and I’m kind of close in, this was the voice of Louis Gossett Jr. Lou and I in 2013 were a little drunk at the end of the Image Awards late at night. I’m not sure we were drunk from exhaustion or alcohol, but both were involved. And he leans over to me and he says, “You know, I’ve been in this racial justice fight my whole life Ben, but you know, sometimes I feel like we’re fighting over who’s in first class. And what we need to do is look out the window of the airplane and recognize that we’ve lost 25,000 feet of altitude in the last three minutes. We wouldn’t be so focused on who’s in first class. When you’re running through the plane trying to find the smartest person to get them in the cockpit. Because, Ben, whoever’s in that cockpit is either drunk, asleep or dead.” I said, “Lou, that’s beautiful, brother, but what are you talking about?” And he said, “The planet, man, the planet’s dying. And it doesn’t matter who’s in first class on a dead planet.” So it’s going to be a challenge. But I’m excited and I’m putting together a great team of leaders, both [of] who are there and folks who are pivoting from other careers to come in and we will build. The nice thing about the Sierra Club is that it is … how do I say this? It is a kind of uncomfortably large coalition to start with, and that’s what gives me hope that we can build a coalition big enough to win.
On Overcoming Health Issues
I never expected to make it to 50. I thought I’d be dead by 43, like my paternal grandfather at 41. When I stepped down as head of the NAACP, all signs were pointing in that direction. My blood pressure had gone up for reasons nobody could explain to me, from 127 to 186 in five years and showed no sign of heading in a different direction. I turned 50 [Jan. 18]. I’m excited because I figured out what was going to kill me. I found out what had killed my paternal grandfather and I dealt with it. It was undiagnosed sleep apnea and I dealt with it well. My Black granddad lived to 92. His bride just passed at 105. And so now I feel like I have another whole half century in front of me. And I’m pretty excited about that.
Q: Let’s talk about the book for a little bit. You said this book in particular is a reflection of your grandmother. Tell us a little about Mamie Bland Todd.
A: Mamie Bland Todd was a tough chick. She worked for Planned Parenthood in 1940 in Baltimore City, in the Catholic state. At 13 or 12, her father approached her with a model Ford with the engine in pieces. He took the engine completely apart. “When you can get the engine back together,” he said, “you can drive it. I’ll go to the sheriff and I’ll get you a special driver’s license just to drive in this county. I need to know that in Jim Crow, Virginia, if you ever break down on the road, you can fix it quickly.” She was the second oldest, but she was the most responsible. So he took the engine apart, and by the time she was 13, it was back together. If you ever want to hear her voice, you [search] in StoryCorps, Ben Jealous, Mamie Todd or Ben Jealous. Mamie will come right up. She told the story. It’s in the book about the day that she had just had enough as a teacher, the chalkboard officially no longer retained chalk in her classroom, and she had no way to teach. Her grandfather, who was really the soul, was at the center of this book. He built the one-room schoolhouse she was educated in, and he had given the land for all of the Black schools in that county. When she showed up at the school district, there was still acknowledgement of him on the front door to the school district building. Jim Crow had said Reconstruction was long since over and they told her to come in around back. And she said, “Well, my granddaddy’s name is right next to the front door. I think I’ll come through it.” And she sat down with the superintendent with a great sense of equality because that’s ultimately something you have to choose to do. She just told him what was what, what she needed and when she needed it. The next day, a truck showed up laden with supplies for the entire school that she was teaching at. So that was my grandma. She was my hero. But she left me with a couple of mysteries. One of them is the title of the book: never forget our people were always free.