The national board of the NAACP voted Friday to dismiss the organization’s president, the Rev. Cornell William Brooks, just three years after putting Brooks in charge of the nation’s largest and perhaps best-known civil rights organization.
NAACP Board Chairman Leon Russell said the change is necessary to better position the organization to combat the onslaught of civil rights assaults and rollbacks the board expects under President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and to prepare the organization to shape the country in the next century.
While Brooks has been present at social justice demonstrations across the country, Russell says the board is looking for a leader who can focus on strengthening the local chapters and navigating local, regional and state policymaking processes.
For instance, Brooks was among the activists arrested in January at the office of now-
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a Republican senator, during a sit-in protesting his nomination for the cabinet position.
“I think Cornell was good at raising the issue in terms of going out and being able to do the protest part of it,” Russell said. “But we are now at the point where the issues are raised. Everyone is aware of them. But it’s time to put something on the table to actualize solutions.”
Brooks could not be immediately reached for comment.
Russell said the board will launch a search for a new president with the aim of completing that process by year’s end. In the interim, he and the organization’s national staff will maintain day-to-day operations.
When Brooks was appointed president and chief executive in May 2014, he was best known as a minister, head of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and a former trial attorney for the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.
He arrived a few months after the NAACP’s national office underwent a round of staff cuts and a significant budget shortfall. The organization was also wrestling with a series of incidents that called into question its willingness to stand against corporate and individual wealthy donors. The most prominent incident came in April 2014, when the NAACP Los Angeles branch was preparing to bestow a second award on former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling as a taped conversation of him using racial slurs became public.
The organization has recorded some wins during Brooks’s tenure. In North Carolina, the NAACP state conference president, local chapters and other organizations staged ongoing protests at the state capitol known as Moral Mondays and pushed civil rights concerns into the national news. The NAACP of North Carolina, working with lawyers from the Advancement Project, also helped overturn North Carolina’s voter ID law, a ruling the Supreme Court decided not to reconsider this month.
Brooks also staged a Justice Tour — holding events around the country to discuss social justice concerns — and led a seven-day protest march from Ferguson, Mo., to the state capitol to protest the fatal shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a police officer.
Yet some of the organization’s critics have said that Brooks has struggled to continue some of the progress made under his predecessor, Ben Jealous. Jealous has been credited with reversing declining membership and tamping down questions about the organization’s relevance in the 21st century.
In the wake of Trump’s election, civil rights organizations have raised concerns about the administration’s willingness to protect black and Latino voting rights, stem the tide of predatory financial products that target consumers of color and address criminal justice and education disparities.
Russell said the NAACP aims to strengthen the organization’s 2,200 local chapters in a way that will allow them to serve as better watchdogs in communities around the country, engage more rapidly in crises, engage with long-term issues of inequity and build a new legion of activists trained to do the full range of civil rights work — including legislation, litigation, political organizing and protests.
“So much of the work is going to have to be local and our efforts to fight back are going to have to be national,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of civil rights organization Color of Change, who was a longtime member of the NAACP. “The NAACP has chapters all around the country and has real potential, in that way, to make a difference.”