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Civil rights activist Ben Jealous talks racism and inequality

The former NAACP president says it was actually his experience at the Capitol in Sacramento that helped launched his civil rights career.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A packed house gathered at Underground Books in Sacramento's Oak Park to hear civil rights leader Ben Jealous, the youngest ever former national president of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"You know, it's good to be home in Northern California. This block seems like the Wakanda of Sacramento," Jealous told a crowd of people at the bookstore.

He just released a new book called "Never Forget Our People Were Always Free: A Parable of American Healing." The son of a White father and a Black mother is using the book to share his own personal story of overcoming the challenges of racism and inequality.

"My parents moved out to Northern California because their marriage had been against the law in Maryland," said Jealous. "They wanted to raise their kids in a place where there was a better chance of their family being and their kids not facing discrimination and hatred in the schools."

Jealous says it was the Jan. 6 Capitol attack that inspired him to write the book. He's hoping to encourage people from all walks of life to come together.

"I decided I need to write a book that would speak to as many Americans as possible about the urgent need and possibility for us to come together in the interest of healing our country but also creating a better country for all our kids," he said.

The former NAACP president says it was actually his experience at the Capitol in Sacramento that helped launched his civil rights career.

"I had grown up going to civil rights protest," said Jealous. "I have organized a lot since, but the first protest I ever helped organize was an anti clear-cutting rally here in Sacramento. And my first order of business at the NAACP was launching our climate justice program."

Jealous says he hopes to leave readers with three big lessons from the book: that we can end racism, the path to do that is to truly be like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and finally, he calls for building "uncomfortably large coalitions."

"If you're comfortable in your coalition, then your coalition is too small," he said. 

"In times like these, it's so easy for us to figure out what we disagree with people on…what's far more urgent in a democracy is to find the one or maybe two things we can agree on and then go get that done," he added.

He points to his work here in the Capitol city with Democrats and Republicans on things like prison reform.

"I worked with Governor Schwarzenegger out here... to change employment forms in California state government so that people who had paid their debt to society still have a fair shot at a public job," said Jealous.

He said his next mission is tackling climate change as executive director of the Sierra Club.

"You know, in a lot of places that seems odd for a Black guy to run a green group, it has never happened. There has never been a major environmentalist organization lead by a Black person ever in the United States," said Jealous.

While back home in Northern California, Jealous is hoping to inspire others to come together with his brand new book.

"Fundamentally, this book is a call to people to listen to their neighbors, to recognize that their neighbors aren't those who just agree with them. They are also the people who they think don't agree with them and yet have the faith that if they just sit down and listen to each other, they'll find they have more in common than they don't and there's actually more than one thing they can agree on. That creates the opportunity to force the politicians to actually do big things again," he said.


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