Benjamin Jealous, former president of the NAACP, opened his Common Hour speech last Friday by calling out Governor Paul LePage, who in 2011—while Jealous was still in charge of the NAACP—told the civil rights organization that they could “Kiss my butt.”
“You can look at his own family and see that he’s benefited from the work of the NAACP: the Governor descends from French Catholics, who were lynched viciously in the state in the early part of the twentieth century,” Jealous said. “He would not be governor of this state if it was not for our work, and he needs to show us more respect.”
Jealous’ speech, which concluded with a standing ovation by the roughly 450 community members in attendance at Pickard Theater, was titled “That One Big Thing,” and focused primarily on how Bowdoin students can motivate themselves to tackle some of the toughest challenges facing the world today.
“It’s ultimately those acts of solidarity with our fellow citizens, our fellow Americans—no matter where they live or what status they have—that defines us as great to ourselves,” said Jealous in an interview with the Orient after his speech. “If I really was talking about anything today, I was trying to get people to focus on how to be a hero to themselves.”
A committee of faculty, staff, and students brought Jealous to campus to speak in commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his legacy. Jealous’ speech came a month after spoken-word group Climbing PoeTree performed on campus for MLK day.
Jealous, a born-and-raised Californian with relatives who attended Bowdoin, first visited campus when he was 17 and touring colleges. However, he ended up attending Columbia University, where he began working with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Jealous told a number of anecdotes to illustrate his path from young college student to head of one of the largest civil rights groups in the country.
He spoke about his time in Mississippi, when he organized statewide protests against a decision that would close multiple historically black colleges in the state and convert one of them to a prison. Jealous recounted the story of meeting in a Waffle House at 2 a.m. with a group of his colleagues who had just been chased out of a rally by white supremacists in Starksville County. When an old white man approached them and asked if they were the men he had seen on the television, they responded yes, then grew uncomfortable as he set down his bag as if hiding a gun in his waistband.
“I just said, so now everyone in the restaurant could hear, ‘Hold up, let’s hear what he has to say,’ and they eased back, everybody watching his hand. He turns around and says ‘I just want to shake your hand, ’cause if I’d been born a nigger in this crazy state, I’d be mad as hell too! I’m so proud of you boys.’”
The man later joined Jealous and the others in helping to protest the school closures.
Jealous warned against easy assumptions of who your friends are and aren’t in activist circles. He recounted the story of a young woman named Jotaka Eaddy who he met while trying to repeal child capital punishment laws across the country. Eaddy—a former high school cheerleader and McDonald’s employee—convinced three state legislatures to outlaw death sentences for minors. One of her favorite tactics was to approach local pro-life organizations, which many people didn’t expect to cooperate with groups like the NAACP.
“You can’t afford to do that in a democracy, when you ultimately will need the will of the majority to secure the rights of the minority,” Jealous said in his speech. “You've got to be willing to extend the hand of friendship—or at least of partnership for that moment—to anybody who will receive it.”
After his talk, Jealous attended a luncheon with many campus leaders and activists, offering words of advice for how Bowdoin students can get out and make an impact.
“Einstein talked about his guilt of being at Princeton during World War II,” Jealous said. “It’s important when we’re in places of privilege to stay focused and engage in the world’s fight. I was inspired by students here who are on their way to D.C. to get locked up next week in a Keystone XL pipeline protest and other students who are really engaged in trying to ensure that Bowdoin stays on the path of being an increasingly inclusive campus.”
In his speech, Jealous talked about the myth that to change the world a person needs to be a famous leader. As the first president of the NAACP to be born after the Civil Rights Movement—for which the organization is so well known—Jealous worked hard during his tenure to make the group more than just a piece of history.
“In all these months—Black History Month, Women’s History Month—we put the great heroes on such high pedestals, often by omitting what was absolutely ordinary about them, like the fact that Martin Luther King’s classmates at seminary thought him so quiet they worried he might be an Episcopalian,” Jealous said. “We make their example seem unattainable, and in doing so, we sell ourselves short.”
Student reaction to Jealous’ speech emphasized the speaker's charisma, even though some felt the talk fell short of how-to advice.
“He was a great speaker, a great orator, storyteller,” said Jun Choi ’15. “I don't really know what I was expecting, but I thought it was going to be more instructional. It seemed more of a descriptive piece of his certain experiences...rather than this is how I did it.”
Others found more value in the anecdotal approach to his speech.
“I’d say I felt very motivated,” said Sam Shapiro ’14. “He made it seem as though there’s a lot of power in the voices of young people in that his stories involved him [as an] undergrad and then involved a young woman when she was high school age. He also talked about rallying college students and getting out student voices, so for me, as someone who’s 22, to have him put the center of power in the voices of young people and college students, was a pretty empowering experience.”
Jealous also commented on some of the topics raised in “What Does Bowdoin Teach,” a 360 page report by the National Association of Scholars (NAS) that among other things, questioned the College’s commitment to diversity and its lack of promoting American exceptionalism and citizenship.
“The role of the university ultimately is to train leaders for our country…and the world,” Jealous told the Orient. “Quite frankly, increasing training of people of all colors who can work effectively with people of all colors and cultures is critical. Groups such as the [NAS] are ultimately victims of their own nostalgia, and they should—rather than mourning the end of the past—be preparing for a more prosperous future. That’s what Bowdoin’s doing.”
Nicole Wetsman and Joe Sherlock contributed to this report.