The preacher’s windup is slow and deliberate. He has come to share what God has placed upon his heart this Sunday morning, he says. Standing before the congregation in a white robe that swallows his small frame, with his head bowed, he looks quietly meditative.
Then he begins to preach, starting with the title of his sermon: “A recessionary cosmology and a theology of recovery.” It’s an ungainly title, but from it, Cornell William Brooks builds steadily to a fervid crescendo.
“You have hope! No matter how bad it seems! No matter what you’ve gone through,” says the lawyer and minister recently named head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
He stomps his foot for effect, and shouts of “Preach! Amen!” come from the congregation of Turner Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in Hyattsville, Md., as the hometown crowd cheers on the church kid made good.
Brooks’s slow windup to a roaring boom is typical of his career. He takes the helm of the nation’s best-known civil rights organization as a virtually unknown 53-year-old whose selection took the insular, hierarchical civil rights community by surprise.
And there’s a subtext, in his case, to the normal theater of rolling out a new leader. He will have to answer a pressing question: How can he give new life and relevancy to the granddaddy of the nation’s civil rights organizations?
As the NAACP prepares for its 105th annual convention, in Las Vegas, where Brooks will meet some of the association’s 350,000 members, the nation’s fissures over race resurface once more. It’s deja vu all over again: Obama won! Has America turned the corner to become post-racial? What is the NAACP’s job now? Does race even matter? But . . . remember Trayvon Martin.
Brooks’s sermon, delivered in this light-filled church outfitted with stained-glass windows in which all the figures — including Jesus — have brown skin, reveals his core philosophy.
“We as African Americans hear from the leading commentators telling us how bad things are and how bad things have been and how bad things are likely to be, and yet we come into this house of God and praise God,” he says in a preacher’s staccato. “Through slavery, through reconstruction, through Jim Crow, through the modern civil rights movement — again and again and again, African Americans have refused to give up. We’ve refused to give over. We’ve refused to turn it in.”
Brooks has an affinity for history, a determined bent toward the positive, and an abiding faith in God. He will need all of those traits in his new job.
As the NAACP’s 18th president, Brooks inherits the organization’s storied history, peopled over the years with such towering African American figures as W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson and Ida B. Wells. He’s reminded of this legendary past when he enters the association’s cavernous brick office building on the outskirts of Baltimore. Around the old building, which once served as a retreat for Catholic nuns, you can find a bust of Medgar Evers, the NAACP martyr who opened the association’s first field office in Mississippi, and photographs of Roy Wilkins, who led the NAACP during the heady days of the civil rights movement. A street leading to the building is named for DuBois, a philosopher and a founder of the NAACP.
Brooks is introducing himself to the NAACP by sharing his family’s narrative of African American ascension. Speaking to groups, he likes to tell the story of a moment during his student days at Yale Law School. With some classmates, he was flipping through a book of photos of African American life in South Carolina when they landed on a photograph of the Rev. James Edmund Prioleau, Brooks’s grandfather. A stately, bespectacled man, Prioleau ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the 1940s in a symbolic effort to inspire an increase in voter registration among blacks and to help recruit NAACP members.
“Two of my great-grandfathers fought on the side of the Union,” Brooks says during an interview in his still sparsely furnished NAACP office. “They were sharecroppers involved in the rice strikes and struck to be paid in cash rather than scrip,” a form of credit often extended to sharecroppers in lieu of cash.
His grandmother attended a New England conservatory around the turn of the 20th century. His mother went to boarding school. His father joined the military and attended medical school.
Social justice and the work of organizations such as the NAACP undergirded his family life, Brooks says. And in his family’s narrative, he found his own calling.
He is a fourth-generation minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the only denomination, he says proudly, to be established out of social protest when its black founders left the Methodist Church because of its segregationist practices.
Brooks felt called to join the ministry during his college years at Jackson State University, a historically black college in Mississippi, where he met his wife, Janice.
“He was always an activist. At Jackson State he wanted longer hours in the library,” Janice recalls. “He would always say our school is just as good as any other school, and I want to be taught that way.”
Brooks says that civil rights was a steady part of the curriculum at Jackson State, where he accepted a challenge from a guest speaker who encouraged the students to read all of Martin Luther King Jr.’s works, the Bible from cover to cover and every word of the Constitution. Brooks did all three. “It helped me get in touch with my own history and the call for social justice that emerged out of my family tree,” he says.
Attending seminary at Boston University’s School of Theology, where King studied, he focused on social ethics and systematic theology. His curriculum included works by Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi and Bayard Rustin, along with King and others.
After seminary, Brooks attended law school at Yale and worked as both an associate minister and a civil rights attorney.
By the time he joined the Department of Justice as a trial attorney, Brooks was the father of one son and another would soon follow. His family had settled in central Prince William County in Virginia. Brooks’s work there focused on victims of housing discrimination. He helped win a large settlement in one case; in another, he filed the government’s first lawsuit against a nursing home, alleging housing discrimination based on race.
In 1998, Brooks ran for Congress in the Northern Virginia district held by Rep. Frank R. Wolf, who at the time had held the seat for 17 years. The Republican trounced Brooks, who was outspent and out-campaigned.
“I spent two years talking about equitable school funding and jobs,” Brooks says, calling his failed run for office great training for “talking to people about core values.”
Nine years later, Brooks took the helm of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, a state-based nonprofit, and focused it on criminal justice reform. Under his leadership, the group wrote white papers on topics such as “the reentry of gang-affiliated individuals in New Jersey,” and Brooks lobbied for “ban the box” legislation, which forces employers to remove the box asking about any criminal convictions from job applications, to give ex-offenders a better shot at employment. Background checks can still be conducted later in the hiring process.
In 2010, Brooks helped push laws through the state legislature that made it possible for recently released prisoners to re-enroll in Medicaid, required the state to provide recently released prisoners the identity documents they would need to apply for jobs and made it possible for children of parents convicted of drug offenses to qualify for food stamps. Brooks, who served on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s transition team, pressed the then-new Republican governor to look at the legislation, touting it as fiscally conservative.
Although he can be soft-spoken, Brooks earned a reputation for working with both political parties. Yet he was still relatively unknown outside the state.
“I knew of him, but I did not know him,” says the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose base is in New York.
For much of his time in New Jersey, Brooks commuted home to Virginia on weekends to be with his family. His sons, Cornell II and Hamilton, are 17 and 14.
Brooks’s supporters like to say that he was busy working, not making his name known, but Roslyn Brock, chairman of the NAACP’s board of directors, also acknowledges that “one of the external challenges for him may be that he’s underestimated because he’s a new voice.”
Social scientists have outlined five stages in the life of organizations. They are formed, grow and develop, reach maturity, and age. Then they either die or are revolutionized.
The NAACP seems to stand at the crossroads between irrelevance and revolution. Benjamin Jealous, the young leader who stepped down from the helm last year to spend time with his family and because of reported clashes with Brock, raised its profile and improved its media savvy. But less than a year after his departure, the NAACP has cut its staff, and Brock, who says the association is not in debt, acknowledges “cash flow” issues.
“The organization in its long history has had ebbs and flows,” says Patricia Sullivan, a history professor at the University of South Carolina and author of “Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement.” This moment is no different, she says.
During his stint in New Jersey, Brooks relied on a hefty endowment to keep the social justice institute afloat. The NAACP is more dependent on consistent, continual fundraising — much of which will fall to him.
He will also have a broad constituency to attend to. On a recent rainy Thursday evening, he is ushered into a meeting of the NAACP’s Washington, D.C., chapter, one of the 2,300 local chapters that form the organization’s backbone.
Smartly dressed in a tailored suit and dark-rimmed glasses, Brooks takes on the subtext, the question he knows that he must answer wherever he goes.
“When I think about our history, it represents a floor, not a ceiling on our greatness, on our aspirations,” he tells his audience before explaining his plan to focus on criminal justice issues, fight the rollback of the Voting Rights Act and diversify the NAACP’s membership.
“In the same way that in times of peace people don’t view a strong military as necessary, most people don’t understand you need a threshold defense against discrimination. That's what NAACP is,” he says, sounding almost revolutionary.