Jealous’s campus appearance, which also included hosting a workshop on activism earlier in the day, kicked off Emerson’s month-long recognition of 60 years of civil rights progress, which coincides with national Black History Month.
“I beg each of you, if you do nothing else this year, give yourself a day, an hour, a week, a month, to figure out what you’re going to stand for before you die,” Jealous said. “It will change your life.”
Jealous said he began observing injustice for African Americans when he was a young adult. He made a list of what he wanted to change, and decided to focus on ending discrimination in the criminal justice system.
“My generation has come of age to be the most incarcerated generation on the planet. And the most murdered in the country. What happened there?” he said.
Today, even with much advancement in equality, Jealous said there is still evidence of injustice.
“We are seeing democracy itself attacked from within from our own fellow citizens,” he said. “We see—not people breaking the law to suppress the vote—but using the law to suppress the vote.”
Knowing this, Jealous told the story of how he worked with Mississippi activists to coordinate a march to save a group of predominantly black colleges from being shut down or converted to prisons. Those colleges still exist to this day.
“We have a debt to those who risked their lives before us,” he said. “We have a debt of honor to them to make sure that, if nothing else, we don’t allow the rights to be diminished that they gave us.”
As the youngest person to lead the NAACP, Jealous helped increase the number of individual donors from 16,000 to 156,000. He also increased the 185,000 online activists to 2.1 million.
He stepped down from the position in 2013 to spend more time with his family in addition to starting a speaking tour.
Jealous is a Rhodes Scholar who was named to the “40 Under 40” lists for both Forbes and Time magazines. Prior to the NAACP, Jealous spent 15 years working as an activist journalist and community organizer. While at the Jackson Advocate newspaper in Mississippi, his investigations were credited with exposing corruption at a state penitentiary and proving the innocence of a black farmer who was being framed for arson. He also worked for Amnesty International, where he led successful efforts to pass federal legislation against prison rape, expose the increasing trend of children being sentenced to life in prison without parole, and draw attention to racial profiling after the 9/11 attacks.
Jealous’s appearance was sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and EBONI (Emerson’s Black Organization for Natural Interests).