Ben Jealous, a civil rights activist and former president and CEO of the NAACP, addressed WSU students and faculty for the 21st Annual Diversity Conference. Jealous urged students to fight for social justice, no matter how big or small the issue.
WSU held the conference to foster an environment of diversity and inclusion on campus. WSU President Brad Mortensen announced the university had experienced a faster-than-expected 31 percent increase in Hispanic/Latinx enrollment since 2015.
“While we celebrate that, we know that is not the end of the road,” Mortensen said. “We know that it is important to bring all of us together, regardless of our race, gender or religion.”
The conference concluded with Jealous’ keynote speech. Jealous has specialized in bringing together people with different backgrounds to form coalitions in support of social causes. Jealous has led activism against the juvenile death penalty and racial profiling and in support of voting rights and marriage equality.
Activism is a part of Jealous’ family history. Five generations of his family have been involved with the NAACP. Jealous takes pride in the fact that his great-great grandfather was born a slave but died a state legislator in Virginia.
For Jealous, his own life of activism began as a 21-year-old college student in New York City in 1990. He was attending a friend’s birthday party when the group called for a toast. The friends had a libation for their non-present friends, other young men of color, who had either gone to prison or had died before reaching their 21st birthday.
“To turn the mood around, my friend toasted the fact that one more black or Latino man in America had survived to 21,” Jealous said. “The notion cut me like a knife.”
Jealous faced several sleepless nights after that party. He could not stand the fact that men of color were still facing injustice, even after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1970s. Jealous began to question what had gone wrong, and what he could do to advance the cause of men and women of color.
Jealous ended up in Jackson, Mississippi. The state’s governor was adamant on shutting down or converting historically black colleges into prisons. Jealous and his team of activists set to work organizing protests and opposition to the governor’s plans.
Despite a historically hostile environment towards demonstrations, especially those from people of color, Jealous and his team reached out to blacks and whites for support. Jealous had to learn to let go of his assumptions when asking people to join the cause.
He found allies and enemies in unexpected places. A large gathering of people celebrating Earth Day, drunk from a day of alcohol and music, chanted “Get a rope!” when some of Jealous’ organizers asked for help.
Feeling dejected, Jealous and his team met at a Waffle House to strategize and collect themselves. There, an older white male—who appeared initially antagonistic towards the group—threw his full support behind Jealous and his team and offered words of encouragement.
“We stopped assuming,” Jealous said. “We had been assuming who our friends were and who our friends were not.”
Thanks to Jealous’ organizing efforts and outreach to various groups of people, the governor’s plan failed, and investment in HCBUs increased. He believes that anybody with the necessary passion and work ethic can advance a just cause.
“If you feel like the universe, or God, or however you interpret the order of things to be has already made it clear to you what your purpose is, pursue it with all your heart right now,” Jealous said.
The audience provided a standing ovation upon the conclusion of Jealous’ speech. LaNicia Duke, an African American teacher who is new to Utah, was inspired to tears from Jealous’ message.
“We can change the world together,” Duke said.