NAACP Chairman Reflects on the Challenges in the Wake of Zimmerman

Benjamin Todd Jealous says the verdict in Sanford points to some of the hurdles facing the civil rights community, but that he is yet heartened.

Posted: 07/17/2013 10:30 AM EDT

REPORTING FROM ORLANDO, FLORIDA — Benjamin Todd Jealous is presiding at the annual convention of the NAACP at a dramatic moment in modern civil rights history. The meeting is taking place as the world is absorbing the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin.

For many attending the convention here, just 15 miles from the small Florida town of Sanford where the verdict was rendered, this is a period of painful national dialogue and reflection. Still, Jealous, the president and chief executive of the historic civil rights organization, says there is reason to feel heartened about the future of race relations despite the challenge of recent events.

“It’s clear that we’re at a time that things can go backwards on us quickly,” Jealous said, in an interview with BET.com during the organization’s convention.

“But when you look at the hundreds of thousands of people who are protesting peacefully, then you look at how people are dealing with the outrage and frustration of some recent events, you realize that we have great reason to hope,” Jealous said. “We have a reason to feel that things ultimately will be better for our children in the future than they are right now.”

For the moment, however, Jealous said his organization will be at the forefront of urging Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice to undertake a civil rights suit against Zimmerman in the death of Martin, the 17-year-old Miami teenager who was killed 17 months ago.

Is it a tough season in the nation’s racial history, Jealous pointed out. The NAACP convention also comes just a month after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision in the Civil Rights Act of 1965, a move that removes longstanding federal review of changes to voting laws.

Yet, he made it clear that many of the members who attended the convention here and others who were fighting for civil rights could point to important gains that had taken place in the course of the last few months and in the last year.

For one thing, he mentioned several initiatives that had been born out of large-scale protests against the New York City Police Department's stop-and-frisk program.

“In New York City, we’ve had tough new anti-racial profiling legislation passed,” he said. “And for the first time, there will be an inspector general to hold the police accountable for their actions.”

He also talked about the criticism by the NAACP and others regarding the "stand your ground" laws in Florida, which enables citizens to use deadly force if they feel they are in imminent danger. It is an issue that drew national attention in the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin, when Zimmerman considered using the Florida law to avoid trial. Several other states have passed similar laws.

“In the last year, for the first time, no state in the continental United States passed 'stand your ground' legislation,” Jealous said. “And there is reason to believe that there will be a repeal of these laws in some places.”

But Jealous said there were important battles that needed to be waged in the aftermath of the verdict of George Zimmerman. He said there was a dramatic need for the nation to take continued strides in civil rights when Zimmerman was found not guilty, “but Michael Vick [was] sentenced to prison for killing a dog and a Black woman in Jacksonville gets 20 years for firing shots over the head of a man who beat her repeatedly and was coming back and might kill her.”

Still the recent events in Sanford and in Washington, he said, help make the argument about the need for civil rights organizations.

“The reality is that in this country, victories come from movements with the people who are the most organized and the people who have the most determination,” Jealous said. “And so, we will proceed.”

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(Photo: REUTERS/David Manning)

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