Not your grandmother's NAACP

When Benjamin Jealous, at 35, became the youngest person ever to lead the NAACP in 2008, he took over an institution with a venerable name but whose greatest triumphs appeared to lie in the past. Mr. Jealous, who announced last week that he will step down from his post as president of the nation's oldest civil rights organization in January, quickly set about changing that, working to attract a younger generation of members with a more expansive vision of civil rights that addresses contemporary concerns. As a result, the NAACP he leaves behind is today a far larger, stronger and more effective advocate for social justice than the group he inherited just five years ago.

Mr. Jealous was the first leader of a major traditional civil rights organization to openly advocate not only for equal treatment of gay people in housing and employment but also for their right to serve openly in the nation's military and to marry. Moreover, he did so at a time when many among the NAACP's traditionally church-going membership opposed equating African-Americans' struggle for equal justice with the gay rights movement.

But Mr. Jealous recognized that no one's rights were safe unless the rights of all were secure. Acting on that principle, he courageously allied his group with gay rights organizations and stood on the front lines of their struggle. When critics charged he had strayed from the NAACP's core mission, he had a ready answer: There are lots of gay people who are also black, and they deserve our support too.

It was a principle he also applied to immigration and the right of people of color from all over the world to live and work in the U.S. free from racial profiling and police harassment. Again, Mr. Jealous insisted on breaking down the cultural barriers that separated African-Americans' quest for equal rights from the struggles of Hispanics and even from black immigrants from places like Haiti, Jamaica and Nigeria.

He was among earliest and most prominent civil rights leaders to advocate for the "Dream Act" allowing children brought into the country illegally by their parents to remain here so long as they stayed in school and out of trouble. That too was a position that took courage at a time when many native-born blacks feared losing their jobs to newcomers from abroad. Mr. Jealous responded by gently reminding those tradition-minded critics that the "colored" people in the NAACP's name included not only American-born blacks but all the descendants of the global African diaspora living on these shores.

Mr. Jealous was a vocal opponent of the death penalty and of "stop-and-frisk" policing tactics. He was a major player in efforts to restrict the sale of military-style assault weapons and pressed for stronger state and federal gun control laws. He didn't win all those fights, but his organization helped raise public awareness of the issues through its campaigns to save the life of Troy Davis, a Georgia man the group believed was wrongly convicted and executed for a 1989 murder of a security guard in Savannah, and to repeal Florida's "stand-your-ground" gun law after the fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin by a local neighborhood watch member in 2012.

In terms of the NAACP's financial health, Mr. Jealous nearly doubled the group's annual revenue, to $46 million last year, and expanded its individual donor base eightfold. It now has 420,000 mobile subscribers and an email list of 1.3 million thanks to his emphasis on finding new ways to reach a younger, tech-savvy audience. That also helped it register nearly 375,000 new voters during last year's presidential election cycle, more than double the number it registered in 2008.

By any measure Mr. Jealous has loomed large on the national stage, but he has also left an indelible mark on Maryland, where his organization is based. Without the NAACP's support for the Maryland Dream Act, the abolition of the state's death penalty and the legalization of same-sex marriage it's unclear whether any of those advances could have been achieved. Mr. Jealous made himself and his group instrumental in those efforts because he believed the NAACP had to keep up with the times in order to remain relevant. Maryland and the nation as a whole are better off for it.

When Mr. Jealous was selected five years ago, many thought it was risky for the NAACP to entrust its leadership to someone who was not directly connected to the great civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s — indeed, someone who was born after those battles were over. As the group searches for his replacement, it looks risky to do anything else.