NAACP selects lawyer, minister as new leader


The selection of Cornell William Brooks, left, came as the United States marked the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. (J. Adams/AP)

The NAACP, which has been under interim leadership since its president resigned six months ago, has chosen Cornell William Brooks as its next leader. Brooks, an attorney and ordained minister, has no national profile but ran for Congress as a Democrat in Northern Virginia in 1998.

He is executive director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, based in Newark, but commutes between that state and the Washington area, where he has a home in Prince William County, Va., and is an associate minister at Turner Memorial AME Church in Hyattsville.

Brooks, 53, spoke carefully Saturday, saying he is reluctant to articulate a vision for the NAACP before he speaks with the association’s membership.

“I don't take the responsibility lightly. I am deeply humbled and honored to be entrusted with the opportunity to lead this powerful, historic organization,” Brooks said in an interview soon after his selection. “In our fight to ensure voting rights, economic equality, health equity and ending racial discrimination for all people, there is indeed much work to be done.”

The NAACP has come under increased public scrutiny in recent weeks because one of its chapters was set to present a humanitarian award to Donald Sterling, owner of the L.A. Clippers, just days after Sterling was caught on tape making racist statements. The chapter president resigned.

In addition, questions about the relevance of the 105-year-old organization have dogged its leaders as the country changes demographically and technologically and civil rights campaigns have moved from street protests to social media.

Brooks, who has a bachelor’s degree from Jackson State University, a master of divinity from Boston University’s School of Theology and a law degree from Yale Law School, has worked on issues such as fair housing and the reentry into society of felons after their release.

In his 1998 congressional bid in Virginia’s 10th District, he was handily defeated by longtime incumbent Frank R. Wolf (R).

Brooks said the NAACP’s relevance is still felt through landmark civil rights rulings, such as the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decisions, which led to school desegregation. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is not directly affiliated with the NAACP, led that legal battle and is celebrating the first Brown ruling’s 60th anniversary.

“As a graduate of both Head Start and Yale Law School, I am a beneficiary, an heir and a grandson . . . of Brown versus Board of Education,” said Brooks, who is married and has two teenage sons.

Roslyn Brock, chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors, acknowledged the challenges facing the organization, which has reduced its staff by 7 percent this year and has lost several top executives, including its chief financial officer.

“We are a leaner, more nimble organization for our new president and CEO to build on,” Brock said. “We have experienced the ebb and flow of funding. We’ve weathered the best of times and the worst of times.”

The Hollins Group of Chicago led the NAACP’s executive search, and Brooks was selected from more than 450 applicants, Brock said. The organization held more than 30 interviews.

The NAACP’s most recent president, Benjamin Jealous, and others in the association had advocated for a woman to be chosen as its next operational leader, but only one woman was among the finalists, according to two sources close to the NAACP who were not authorized to speak publicly about the search process. Finalists for the position included the Rev. Frederick Haynes III, pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, and Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.
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