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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Former NAACP president, Sierra Club executive director speaks at MLK Symposium

Benjamin Jealous discussed the relationship between prison budgets increasing as education funding decreases, the school-to-prison-pipeline and intersectionality among the lower class.

Benjamin Jealous spoke to members of the University of Wisconsin-Madison community at the Memorial Union as the keynote speaker for its Martin Luther King Jr., Symposium. The MLK Symposium, named after the civil rights leader who spoke in the very same hall in the 1960s, is held annually and features prominent Black individuals who have in some way advanced King Jr.’s fight. Past speakers include astronaut Mae Jemison and journalist Nikole Hannah-Brown.

At the age of 14, Benjamin Jealous began volunteering with Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign. He then started the first high school chapter of the Students for Environmental Action Coalition. This first foray into politics and grassroots organizing precipitated a lifetime of activist leadership that took many forms: the NAACP’s youngest-ever president, Maryland’s 2018 Democratic nominee for Governor and, currently, the president of People for the American Way and executive director of the Sierra Club.

Despite the extensive work Jealous has done in the activism sector, he said in an interview with The Daily Cardinal and the Black Voice that he started college with the intent to pursue a career on Wall Street. 

“Then, I realized how much the companies I would be investing in were part of the problem,” said Jealous, underscoring Wall Street’s problematic impact on civil rights and environmental justice. 

Although he did not pursue work on Wall Street, Jealous still chose to devote part of his career to investing, though only in companies that have a “positive social impact,” he said. In his speech he delivered at the Union, he emphasized the inseparable relationship under our current economy between capital and the ways in which we can make forward progress. 

He drew attention to the fact that prison budgets have significantly increased over the past few decades while education budgets have decreased. Those two trends are interconnected, according to Jealous. 

Jealous explained that the school-to-prison pipeline is a well-documented phenomenon that disproportionately affects Black and low-income communities and is intrinsic to the functioning of the prison industrial complex upon which the American economy in part relies.

“Poverty is maintained for division,” Jealous explained. “Your debt is literally the price to keep someone else’s kid incarcerated when he may just be addicted to drugs and in need of rehab.”

Jealous especially emphasized that lower-class white people have more in common with lower-class Black people than with wealthy whites — a point that King Jr. also espoused during his lifetime, along with other Black and white radicals and activists. He encouraged a unity based more on class than race, like the Black Panthers did when they collaborated with the working-class white group the Young Patriots Organization.

In modern sociology, a term often employed for this is intersectionality: The ways in which various identities and social issues intersect in unique ways to create unique positioning in society. Jealous’ involvement with both racial and environmental justice organizations is no coincidence. He described the urgency of the latter issue, noting that “no battle for human rights matters if humanity itself is wiped out.”

Earlier in January, Jealous released a book called “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free: A Parable of American Healing,” which aims to subvert the identity-based boundaries that separate different groups in society to confront issues that face American communities together.

Throughout his speech, Jealous emphasized his commitment to helping young people advance the struggle for liberation. He described student debt as a shackle preventing that progress. 

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“If you want to truly see King’s vision realized, do whatever it takes to end poverty,” said Jealous. “Start by freeing yourselves from student debt.”

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Cormac LaLiberte

Cormac LaLiberte is the current editor of the college news desk. He is a junior studying linguistics, and has previously reported primarily on social issues pertaining to UW-Madison. Get in touch on Twitter @CormacLaLiberte.

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