When the NAACP presented to the world the name of its newest president and chief executive, Cornell William Brooks, the venerable civil rights organization hailed him as a “pioneering lawyer and civil rights leader.”
Brooks is currently the president and chief executive of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice in Newark, as well as an ordained minister; he’s the fourth generation in his family to be in the clergy. When we spoke recently, it was clear that Brooks has a strong commitment to the causes that are at the forefront of the NAACP’s agenda, from voting rights to economic and health equality.
“Voting rights and political representation are a priority of the NAACP and always have been,” he told me. “I would think that the NAACP would continue to protect and expand the franchise. That is certainly speaking to our history and our values.”
Brooks was raised in Georgetown, S.C., and went to Jackson State University in Mississippi. He then went to Yale Law School, where he was the senior editor of the Yale Law Journal. He also has a master’s degree in divinity from Boston University.
Yet, despite his credentials and experience, there has been an undercurrent of criticism in some quarters—some by well-known figures in the nation’s African-American community—of the newly selected NAACP leader. They have charged that his civil rights resume is too thin to qualify him to serve at the helm of the storied organization.
Some have even taken the new leader to task for not having a high enough visibility in previous civil rights challenges, saying he has had little in the way of a nationally recognized persona.
All of this is, sadly, not only unfair to Brooks, but unfair to the spirit of the quest for justice in this country. The truth is that Brooks’ credentials are quite solid, with experience not only in civil rights, but also in management, which is the arena where the NAACP needs most to be served. He should be given the opportunity to demonstrate how his passions translate into organizational leadership.
There were other criticisms just a few short years ago when Benjamin Todd Jealous was selected as president of the organization. By the time Jealous resigned last year to spend more time with his family, he had accomplished a good bit of success. Under his leadership, the NAACP experienced an increase in revenue, from $25 million in 2008 to $46 million last year. At the same time, the number of individual donors increased eight times in the same period.
There is no reason why Brooks might not achieve new and even more impressive accomplishments under his stewardship. And there is certainly no reason to discount that possibility before his tenure becomes effective in July. Instead, this is the time for all supporters of the NAACP and its mission to wish the new president and chief executive well and for all to do what they can to be supportive as the organization moves into its newest chapter.
The United States is beset with significant and bedeviling issues that affect its citizens. We see state after state working feverishly to restrict voting access. Too many places operate on a two-tier educational system that places African-American youth at a perilous disadvantage. There are too many African-American people who are ready to take their place in the nation’s workforce but cannot find work.
Those issues and countless others should be the focus of those who wish to play an encouraging role with the NAACP. And for now, the best way to do so is to provide encouragement and support to Brooks for him to have a powerful and effective voice in the national dialogue.