Obama’s election surprised the NAACP president’s grandfather—but not Jealous, who saw it as another “big and impossible dream” that black Americans would prove possible.
Question: Were you surprised to see an African-American elected president in 2008?
Ben Jealous: No. I’m a fifth generation member of the NAACP, and we train our kids to dream really big and impossible dreams. It has always been the formula for the NAACP. When it was founded and when my grandmother's grandfather first joined, the man had been born a slave. The big dream then was to shame the country out of the practice of lynch mob justice.
And so for us to say from an apartment in New York City where our first group met that we were going to do that was crazy. And yet we did it. It took us 50 or 60 years, but we did it.
So, that's our tradition. Our tradition is to train our kids to dream big dreams and to pursue them doggedly. And about half a century earlier, our membership really started talking in earnest about breaking the color barrier on the White House, about setting it up and fought battle after battle after battle, and that's the context in which I was raised in, in the human rights movement and brought into the NAACP as a teenager, was that we were on a mission to maximize black voter participation and to maximize the opportunities for black people to run for and win office, Mayor, Governor, and so forth.
My grandfather, a couple of generations back, you know if you will, the third generation member of the association was more circumspect. He wasn't able to dream that big. I talked to my grandfather about it and I told him that some friends of mine, before I rose to my current position, I was running a foundation in California. So, some friends of mine and I put in our plan to help move the black vote into early primary states. And we raised several million dollars to do that. I said, I think we have a winner this time, Granddad, I think we're going to go all the way. And he said, "In my 90 years of being a black man on this planet can be of any value to you, don't get your hopes up because it ain't gonna happen." I said, "Really Granddad, you don't think there’s any possibility?" "Well, son," he said, "It'll be a cold day before that happens." Well, less than three years later, I was sitting 15 rows behind the about to become President Obama on Inauguration Day. I kept looking up because it was like the coldest day I could remember in Washington D.C. And I said, "Granddad, you were exactly right. It is a cold day, and Barrack Hussein Obama is President." It was a good day. It was a good day.
Recorded March 10th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen