'We Have a Hard Time Recognizing Our Power'

Ben Jealous, speaker at Duke's MLK commemoration, discusses the future of civil rights

Former NAACP Director Ben Jealous discusses the future of the civil rights movement.
Former NAACP Director Ben Jealous discusses the future of the civil rights movement.

Former NAACP national president Benjamin Jealous will deliver the keynote address for Duke University's annual Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration on Sunday. The 3 p.m. event is free and open to the public. He spoke with Duke Today's Stuart Wells on Tuesday.


Q: Will you address this year's Duke MLK commemoration theme, "50 Years: Backwards or Forward?," in your keynote address?

Jealous: The quandary that I will explore is the dilemma of the last 50 years. We leapt forward in the first 10 years -- to 1973 -- just as we had leapt forward in the 15 years before, but we've increasingly crept backwards. In this period we've seen massive incarcerations skyrocket. We've seen resegregation begin and gain speed. And we've seen our war on poverty stagnate and all but disappear from our collective conscience. What I will talk about ultimately is the need for us to recognize that the mission of the civil rights movement has always been to make our country great by making opportunities more accessible. At the end of the day, yes Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting for the people of color to be included but also for the US of A to be all that it could be.


Q. How to you plan to honor Dr. King's legacy in your keynote address?

Jealous: Last year wasn't just the anniversary of the March on Washington or the Emancipation Proclamation going into effect. It was also the 350th anniversary of a rebellion in Virginia of black slaves and indentured servants. I'll talk about that in the beginning. We in the South tend to assume that the original separation was the result of oppression, but that rebellion reminds us that it was a shared oppression of indentured servants and slaves and that our rebellion was in solidarity against our shared oppressor in the King of England. It's important to know our history deeply and work back from the beginning because it ultimately clues us into a wide range of possibilities, such as working-class white folks and black folks having repeatedly found common cause.


Q. What are the opportunities for making further progress, especially as we near the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

Jealous: Our great opportunities arise at the state level and I've supported building up state and local leaders. While I'll be talking about opportunities for our nation, what's clear is that the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina has benefited the country as a bold reminder, as led by Dr. William Barber, of the need for all of us to keenly focus on the opportunities that state governments present in moving our country forward, and also the threat that they represent for rapidly turning back the clock, if those who would turn back the clock are left unchecked.


Q: You've said that voter outreach and access is pivotal to "how fast the future comes."

Jealous: Most people are not voting rights people. When you ask them to state the most important issue, they say employment, health care, fixing the broken criminal justice system, for example. As members of the world's greatest democracy we like to think that we can take our voting rights for granted. But recent changes are a bold and urgent reminder that in a democracy tyrants can swing things in a powerful direction if they can get enough fools to follow them. And they are a powerful reminder that our voting rights cannot be taken for granted. Voter ID is ultimately a barrier for people who don't have much money. And it's a barrier for young people. Students tend to be poor.

We don't get to make advances in education or stagnating unemployment unless we hold on to our voting rights and, in some areas, reclaim them. The reality is that this struggle is being defined by an increasingly small group of people who also see the headlines that our nation will become a nation of minorities by 2043. But instead of embracing that as the destiny of our nation … and the best example of human unity that the world has ever seen, some are terrified. Those folks tend to be older and richer than the rest of us. As they're invested in the status quo, they are increasingly trapping the rest of us in an economic status lower than we had hoped to achieve.

We are ultimately in control. That great rainbow of ordinary people in this country ultimately hold the power. But we have a hard time recognizing our own power.