COLUMBIA SC — The NAACP’s former national president on Wednesday challenged a group of University of South Carolina students to get into the fight for social justice now.
“Your generation needs you to decide what you will fight for ... what you’re willing to die for,” Benjamin Todd Jealous told a small assembly at the Russell House, one of the events marking the 50th anniversary of USC’s desegregation.
“The beauty of choosing that one thing that you’re going to change is that you often succeed – if you’re really on fire – much faster than you dreamed,” Jealous said, his voice undulating for emphasis.
Jealous, who stepped down in September as NAACP chief, enticed the audience with the story of a 16-year-old girl from tiny Johnsonville who launched a career against the execution of juveniles after she read about a boy her age being sentenced to death.
Jotaka L. Eaddy would go on to become USC’s student body president and later lead organizers against juvenile executions in three states, Jealous said. The 34-year-old, who spoke to students earlier this month, is now a adviser to the president of the National Association for Colored People and its senior director of voting rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 would ban from the death chamber anyone younger than 18 when the crime occurred. At that time, 19 states permitted such executions, including South Carolina.
“Jotaka Eaddy is the reason we no longer execute children,” Jealous said. “She didn’t listen to the (NAACP) lawyers. She just said, ‘This is wrong.’’’
He warned young, activist Americans that their challenges are heavy: voting rights, worker rights, assaults against women, reducing incarceration rates. And their burden also is great given the yoke of student education debt.
Yet he schooled them with his experiences about finding support for social justice in unexpected places: for example, a white Southerner at a Waffle House in Jackson, Miss., who aided a group of young NAACP organizers.
“We took that as inspiration to work beyond our fears and assumptions and get back to organizing,” Jealous said.