Former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous gives talk at UMass

By Carly Burgess

Alisa Weinberg/Collegian

Benjamin Jealous, former president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, spoke to a crowd of community members, faculty and students about the history and current state of race in America during his lecture on Feb. 23.

The talk, titled “The Forgotten Origins and Consequences of Race in America,” was sponsored by the Chancellor’s Office in association with Black Heritage Month.

Chancellor Subbaswamy kicked off the event by speaking about the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois, who was a former founder and leader of the NAACP. He stated that the event fell on the birthday of W.E.B. Du Bois, who was born 149 years ago to the day. Subbaswamy also highlighted the values, goals, and mission of the University of Massachusetts.

“The University is committed to the free exchange of ideas,” said Subbaswamy.

The Chancellor then introduced Jealous, who currently works as a partner for Kapor Capital and a commentator for MSNBC.

Jealous began by talking about how the country can move forward in a time when history seems to be moving two ways at once, specifically citing the presidency of Donald Trump.

Jealous emphasized that within the United States, history repeats itself, or goes through cycles, yet this often remains overlooked.

Additionally, he talked about the history of immigration, indentured servitude, and slavery within the U.S. Jealous stressed that it’s important to know and understand the origins of slavery and race relations.

“We forget too much of our history,” Jealous said.

Jealous also stated that throughout history, certain rights are always being fought for, gained and lost. He went on to emphasize the importance of not only knowing what you are fighting for, but also acknowledging what has been gained already.

“If you don’t know what you’re fighting for,” said Jealous, “chances you’ll lose it are pretty high.”

Jack Danberg, a sophomore English and journalism double major, mentioned that he came to the talk to continue to learn about race and race relations in the U.S.

“As a white person,” said Jack, “continuing my education about race in America is really important,” he said.

Similarly, Sam Cohen, a sophomore journalism major, mentioned that he came to the talk interested in what Jealous had to say, the struggles he has faced, and wanted to hear a different perspective.

Throughout his talk, Jealous shared many personal stories about his life and family, including his time spent campaigning for Bernie Sanders in 2016.

Jealous worked as a community organizer and activist during college, including helping coordinate a march in Mississippi in the early 1990s to save a group of predominantly Black colleges from being shut down and converted into prisons. Those same colleges are still open today.

Jealous brought up mass incarceration multiple times throughout his talk, stating that the U.S. has the most incarcerated people on the planet, with only five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

Jealous said the prison population has increased greatly in the past couple of decades, partly due to the War on Drugs. He also cited the racial disparities within the U.S. prison population and the continuing police brutality against people of color.

Toward the end of his talk, Jealous pointed out that although people are anxious and fearful, retracting in this fear isn’t the answer.

He also emphasized that people need to focus on what they have in common, rather than their differences. People must not only work together, but acknowledge each other’s pain and open up to one another.

“We have more in common than we don’t,” Jealous said.

Jealous ended his speech by encouraging the audience to organize and fight. Difference in race or religion doesn’t matter, what matters is strength in numbers.

He stressed that although many people in the country feel as if all is lost, now more than ever is the time to get more involved and have faith. What makes times like these volatile and scary also makes them hopeful.

“Darkness in this country won’t last,” Jealous said. “Dawn is coming in the morning.”

Carly Burgess can be reached at [email protected]