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NAACP president gives lecture on Tempe campus

COMMUNITY LEADER: Prior to his lecture on Monday afternoon on Civil and Human rights in the 21st Century, Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP, talks with Paul Berman, dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. (Photo by Scott Stuk)
COMMUNITY LEADER: Prior to his lecture on Monday afternoon on Civil and Human rights in the 21st Century, Benjamin Jealous, president of the NAACP, talks with Paul Berman, dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. (Photo by Scott Stuk)

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous traveled to ASU’s Tempe campus, stressing the importance of commitment in a society pressed by political, economic and social issues.

The 10th annual John P. Morris Memorial Lecture, which is held in honor of an original Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law professor, features speakers and panel discussions related to justice, diversity and civil rights issues.

Jealous spoke about the challenges facing the U.S. in the 21st century and the need to push for human rights to become protected, guaranteed rights.

“Take your definition of the American dream. Write it down in one column, and in the other column, take note of every one of the components of the American dream that are not guaranteed (by law),” Jealous said to the audience. “We’re pushing to extend those human rights to become civil rights.”

Each year, Morris’ family and ASU’s Black Law Student Association work to bring in speakers who can tie these issues to present-day situations.

This year, College of Law Dean Paul Shiff Berman invited Jealous to present a lecture titled “Civil and Human Rights in the 21st Century,” followed by a question-and-answer session.

“It’s particularly relevant to have Ben Jealous [speak] because … he’s extraordinarily innovative and working to re-imagine what the NAACP should be in the 21st century,” Berman said. “He is ideal to come to ASU, and to come to the College of Law, because we are in the midst of re-imagining 21st century legal education.”

BLSA president and second-year law student Chaz Ball said recruiting Jealous speaks highly of ASU.

“I think he’s a great individual to speak because NAACP has such a great history with working with the law,” he said. “It says a great deal about ASU and especially the law school, which is constantly getting bigger.”

Throughout the lecture, Jealous addressed the changing role of the NAACP, which goes beyond racism and segregation.

He discussed topics ranging from poverty, health care and education to the death penalty and high levels of incarceration in the U.S.

“The battles of the 21st century are human rights battles, not civil rights,” Jealous said during the presentation. “What will define each of us is the extent in which we work to secure these human rights. Love your neighbor as yourself — everything that we are talking about comes down to loving our neighbors as ourselves.”

Jealous said he remains confident that changes in these areas are approaching and young people have the power to make them happen, as demonstrated in the 2008 election.

The election of President Barack Obama also marked a milestone of NAACP’s nearly 100 years of work, he said.

“I mention that day because it reminds us that in an instant, transformative change can happen,” he said. “But change isn’t just something that happens on Election Day, it’s what happens every day, and we need young people to stay involved.”

Second-year law student Pooja Kedia recognized the importance of youth activism, particularly regarding issues affecting their education.

“Jealous is talking about youth and protecting their liberties,” Kedia said. “We young people don’t vote because we hate ‘old school’ ideas of politics, but we should vote to change the past and create new visions.”

Other law students who attended the lecture said the topics really got them thinking, including first-year student Miguel Zárate.

“A lot of the information [Jealous] gave was striking, and it leaves a big impression on me as a law student,” he said. “It seems we are in this battle, and it has made me collaborate my thoughts on … issues such as education and the death penalty.”

More than 70 people attended, but Zárate said he was surprised the lecture didn’t draw a larger audience.

“This is the largest [public University] in the nation, but the room wasn’t filled,” he said. “It should have been packed with all kinds of students and people.”

Regardless, Jealous said he was honored to speak on issues that were important to Morris during his life.

Morris, an ASU law professor from 1968 to 1993, was dedicated to eradicating racial and social injustice and committed to fostering diversity, said Janie Magruder, spokeswoman for the law school.

Struggling with personal encounters with inequality after law school, Morris was denied opportunities to practice law despite his extensive qualifications, longtime friend and ASU law professor Alan Matheson said.

“No Chicago firm would hire him, although one told him it would allow him to work in the library if he would not meet clients,” said Matheson. “Instead, he joined another lawyer in an anti-trust firm, and one of its first cases was brought against the hospitals in Chicago that would not allow African-American physicians to serve on their staffs. The plaintiff in the case was his brother, and the case was won.”

Morris’s commitment to progressive change in human and civil rights reform is exactly what Jealous said society needs to continue moving forward.

“We’re not trying to go back to the 1800s; that means there is really only one other choice, and that is that we choose to move forward into the 21st century,” Jealous said. “If we are going to make our country catch up with our dream, we have to … choose to live our lives with courage. If you act in spite of fear, you’re eligible to become a hero.”

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