PHILADELPHIA — Cornell William Brooks was a bit under the weather on the second day of the 106th Annual National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Convention. Still, he knew there was little time for him to grow weary, as he moved about the Pennsylvania Convention Center delivering a series of speeches aimed at firing up the base for next year’s presidential election.
“We are giants,” he tells the thousands of NAACP delegates who made the trek to the City of Brotherly Love. “I will not fear the Klan. I will not fear White supremacy. I will not fear the hater. I will not fear the opponents of the NAACP. I will fear no evil. Let us march on. Let us march on until victory is won.”
At the podium, Brooks — a civil rights lawyer and fourth-generation African Methodist Episcopal preacher — was giving the crowd exactly what they had come to the NAACP Convention looking for: a soul-stirring political message, deeply grounded in the rhetoric of Black spirituality.
By the time he finished speaking, the NAACP delegates broke into a sea of shouting. Some started to cry, while others rose from their seats to give their leader a standing ovation.
“Well done,” an elderly lifetime NAACP member tells Brooks right before planting a kiss on his cheek. “You are becoming a fine spokesman for our organization. You are a real race man for our people.”
Taking the national stage
While much of the civil rights community had never heard of Brooks before he was plucked from anonymity to become head of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization last year, he is quickly becoming a household name. And in the process, he is repositioning the NAACP to become a real player in helping to institutionalize civil rights legislation and ultimately help to elect the nation’s next president.
“My prayer was not to get the job, but if I got the job, to earn the trust of the people upon getting the job, a job that I believe that I was called to do,” Brooks tells Diverse in an interview. “There was no Mt. Sinai moment or handing of the tablets. I just honestly believe this is a job where people place an enormous amount of trust in you. They are not looking for perfect leaders. The NAACP is comprised of imperfect leaders who are trying to make more perfect this union.”
Brooks’ rise in prominence comes at a time when the NAACP — which has long been criticized for being too old and outdated — is rebranding itself to engage with younger activists and college-age students.
In the wake of numerous police shootings of unarmed Black men across the country, and looming battles over voting rights and affirmative action, Brooks, 54, has been catapulted to center stage.
After nine parishioners were gunned down at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June, Brooks was one of the first to call the shooting racial domestic terrorism and called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol.
“Cornell Brooks is part pastor, part lawyer, part activist,” said the late Julian Bond, who chaired the NAACP’s Board of Directors from 1998 until 2010 and was a leading member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s. “Both his parts and whole are great.”
Becoming a servant leader
Reared in Georgetown, South Carolina, Brooks enrolled at Jackson State University, a historically Black college in Mississippi, where he received his calling to become both an activist and a minister. It was also at Jackson State where he met his wife, Janice, and decided that he wanted to become a servant leader.
His ideas of servant leadership were solidified at Boston University’s School of Theology, where he studied social ethics and systematic theology. It was there he also seriously began to examine the tactics of leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Bayard Rustin.
He then went on to Yale Law School and, after he graduated, worked as an attorney with the U.S. Justice Department while also serving as an associate minister.
“I started my career as a civil rights attorney, bringing lawsuits around fair housing and fair lending litigation,” he says, as he points out that he filed the federal government’s first lawsuit alleging discriminatory housing against a nursing home.
In 1998, Brooks ran unsuccessfully for a congressional seat in Northern Virginia as a Democrat and, when he lost, returned to work as an attorney for the U.S. government. But this time, it was as senior counsel for the U.S. Federal Communication Commission (FCC), where he worked on legal matters pertaining to minority-owned businesses and later directed the FCC’s Office of Communications Business Opportunities.
It was likely his work as president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice — a nonprofit organization focused on helping urban New Jersey residents — that caught the attention of the NAACP search committee.
U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., says that Brooks led the way in lobbying state legislators in New Jersey for the passage of the “ban the box” legislation, which prohibits employers from placing a box on job applications asking about criminal convictions, to give ex-offenders a better chance at employment.
“I have known this young man as one who has been creative,” says Clyburn, who is the Assistant Democratic Leader of the House of Representatives. “He has made a name for himself.”
Brooks says that his work at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice helped to prepare him to fight for social justice issues from a national platform.
“I saw people my son’s age, people who reminded me of myself when I was their age, being literally criminalized, though not being criminals,” says Brooks of his time working in Newark, New Jersey, where he says he was routinely pulled over and racially profiled while driving up and down the New Jersey Turnpike. “We don’t want to wait another generation. We don’t have another generation to regulate to the dungeons of our criminal justice system. We don’t want another generation to be dehumanized, stigmatized and depersonalized.”
At the NAACP Convention, Brooks called for the passage of the End Racial Profiling Act of 2015, which has been introduced by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., but has gained no traction in either the House or the Senate.
He also marshalled support for America’s Journey for Justice, an 860-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. The Journey was also organized to bring public attention to issues such as voting disenfranchisement, affirmative action, criminal justice reform, education costs — all issues that will inevitably surface during next year’s presidential election. Marchers departed Selma on August 1 and arrived at the nation’s capital on September 15.
“No, we don’t merely march. We march and give marching orders based upon data and facts,” Brooks says matter-of-factly. “We are about putting boots on the ground and laws on the books.”
Despite active college chapters and a visible presence of young activists at the convention, there is still a perception among some that the NAACP is a dying organization.
It’s a perception that both Brooks and Roslyn Brock, who chairs the NAACP’s 64-member board of directors, say continues to burden the organization. Brock, 50, started in the organization when she was 19 years old and rose through the ranks over the years.
“We can’t be our Mommy and Daddy’s NAACP,” she says. “We’ve got to use social media and Twitter, but we’ve also got to listen. The issues of old are still with us, but we’ve got to address them in different ways and our young people are dealing with them at a different and deeper level, so we’ve got to listen to their voices.”
Brooks, who replaced the youngest leader in the organization’s history, Benjamin Todd Jealous, agrees.
“We have to have an eclectic, ecumenical movement,” says Brooks. “Bree Newsome climbs a flagpole. We maintained a boycott. I believe the look of a multigenerational army of activists is a powerful look and a powerful reality.”
But that was a lesson that even Brooks had to learn in Ferguson, Missouri, in the days after Michael Brown’s death.
“In Ferguson, at a community meeting, the young people noticed that everyone onstage was over 35 and everyone in the audience was under 35, so they took the stage,” Brooks recalls. “I got heckled. I got booed with Cornel West. Was that a pleasant, pretty moment? No. But I remembered what it was like at that age, and I didn’t particularly appreciate people lecturing to me in a way that I deemed to be intellectually condescending.”
During a planned NAACP march from Ferguson to the Capitol in Jefferson City to protest Brown’s death, Brooks urged young protesters not to use their mobile devices to film the march, in fear that the marchers would anger White supremacist groups. The young protesters ignored Brooks’ plea and filmed the march and uploaded the footage to the Internet.
“They were right and I was wrong, because when people saw what happened, they realized that the NAACP, as one young brother put it, ‘is gangsta,’” says Brooks. “What that said to me was that we can’t just talk about it, we have to show it. And the way we show it is sometimes risky.”
Jamal Eric Watson can be reached at [email protected].