Recent news that NAACP President Cornell William Brooks and five others had been arrested and charged with misdemeanor criminal trespassing for a sit-in at one of the offices of Sen. Jeff Sessions thrust the longtime civil rights organization to the forefront of a nascent resistance movement against President-elect Donald Trump, his policies and some of his Cabinet picks.
It was also a chance for the old-school civil rights organization to try to update its image and tactics.
“We are in the midst of a Twitter-age civil rights movement,” said Brooks, “which includes environmental racism, the battle against the corrupting power of money in politics, the ongoing struggle for voting rights and all that we traditionally associate with the civil rights struggle. This is an age which demands an NAACP that is policy savvy but street smart.”
Democrats, progressives and civil right advocates have expressed a litany of concerns at the prospect that Sessions (R-Ala.), a longtime antagonist of civil rights advocates, will be the nation’s next attorney general. But it was the NAACP that launched the first civil disobedience against him. Brooks seemed to be everywhere talking about Sessions’s track record.
It was Brooks demanding greater scrutiny of Sessions in his confirmation hearing, scheduled to start Tuesday. And it was Brooks who repeatedly tweeted a six-person composite of mug shots of the arrested activists complete with hashtags such as “#ThingsIWontApologizeFor.”
Many NAACP critics say the organization is the embodiment of an outdated brand of suit-and-tie activism that puts too much of a premium on respectability and etiquette. Even some of the organization’s backers use words like “sleepy,” “senior” and “venerable” to describe the 108-year-old organization.
But Brooks said, before explaining that his own mother had expressed support for the protest but disappointment that Brooks’s mug shot featured the NAACP chief with a 5 o’clock shadow: “We have to be prepared to sometimes engage in activity that some would describe as radical. And we certainly have to be prepared to let young people know what we are doing, make it clear that this is an organization where they can engage in the issues of the day, where they are. And that is Twitter.”
To be clear, protesting the possibility of an Attorney General Sessions is not a mere marketing opportunity.
Sessions has voiced, in allegedly joking terms, admiration for racist organizations. He opposed equal-pay measures in Congress and described the Voting Rights Act as “intrusive.” As a prosecutor, he put three civil rights activists on trial for alleged voter fraud in a case that a jury rejected in three hours.
Sessions has repeatedly countered these descriptions of his record by telling reporters that he is not a racist.
“The question is not is Jeff Sessions a racist,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “The question is not is Jeff Sessions a good man. The question is not what is in his heart. It is how can a man with this record be prepared to fulfill the core responsibilities of the attorney general of the United States.”
Brooks promises that other Trump nominees, especially those who appear hostile to the core mission of the agency they would lead, should expect to be the targets of litigation and civil disobedience. And senators who plan to “rubber stamp” Trump nominees on the basis of collegial ties and preexisting friendly relationships should know that more civil disobedience is planned across the country, Brooks said Friday.
Brooks said that 28,000 people joined one of the NAACP’s 2,200 chapters online in 2016. So building and expanding its social-media footprint must be part of the NAACP’s work.
Patricia Sullivan, author of the 2009 book “Lift Every Voice: The NAACP and the Making of the Civil Rights Movement,” said that the NAACP’s future is still rooted in its past.
“I think we have today a vision of the NAACP that really is not connected to its rich history, not rooted in fact,” said Sullivan, a University of South Carolina historian. “I don’t mean to imply that the organization is flawless,” she said. “But what happened this week sounds to me like they are getting back to their roots.”