Benjamin Jealous, the NAACP's outgoing national president, will deliver the keynote address for Duke University's annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration on Sunday, Jan. 19.
This year's theme -- "50 Years: Backwards or Forward?" -- complements the recent 50th anniversary of Duke's first black undergraduate students, evokes the 1963 March on Washington and looks ahead to the 50th anniversary year of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The keynote, which is free and open to the public, begins at 3 p.m. in Duke Chapel. Free parking is available in the Bryan Center Parking Garage (see map at maps.duke.edu/map/?id=21&mrkId=2963).
"The theme really came out of the discussion about the nation being at one of those critical points where there are significant challenges to the progress we've made over the decades and even some moves backwards," said Benjamin Reese, co-chair of the MLK Planning Committee and vice president for Duke's Office for Institutional Equity.
Jealous has been a prominent crusader for economic justice and empowerment. Under his leadership since 2008, the nation's largest civil rights organization worked to abolish death-penalty laws in at least four states, opposed "stop-and-frisk" police tactics and stand-your-ground law, embraced gay rights in a historic 2012 vote and has defended voting rights. Donations have also increased and the number of total NAACP activists has topped 1 million.
The Rev. William Turner, last year's keynote speaker and co-chair of the commemoration committee, says Jealous is a "vigorous, energetic, young leader who can inspire the young people in particular, but also the wider community."
Turner, a Divinity School professor and member of one of the earliest classes to integrate Duke, says the NAACP has emerged as a platform for many voices in North Carolina "who are concerned with social and economic justice." "In some ways, North Carolina is the bellwether of what kind of nation we are going to be in the 21st century."
Appointed at age 35, Jealous is the youngest person to lead the 104-year-old NAACP. A Rhodes Scholar, Jealous began his career as a community organizer in Harlem in 1991 with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund while working his way through college. In 1993, after being suspended for organizing student protests at Columbia University, he went to work as an investigative reporter for Mississippi's Jackson Advocate newspaper.
Jealous was among the earliest and most prominent civil rights leaders to advocate for the DREAM Act, which would have allowed children brought into the country illegally by their parents to remain here so long as they stayed in school and out of trouble.
His leadership in the arena of human rights, in part through his work with Amnesty International, stands out to Reese, who said, "Generationally, I think he can relate to our students."
"Here we are five decades past the notable and tragic events in the arena of civil rights," Reese said. "Are we poised to slip backwards or do we have the courage and the strength and the will as a nation to move more quickly toward equity and the full engagement of all Americans?"
Learn more about this year's commemoration, including an updated listing of events, at mlk.duke.edu.