By Krissah Thompson
“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 (NAACP).
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’ 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’ 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.
Brooks, who lives in Woodbridge, VA, with his wife, Janice, and two sons, is executive director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and an ordained minister. He referenced the milestone anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision that mandated educational equality in explaining his thoughts on his selection.
Brooks also is former senior counsel with the Federal Communications Commission and a former trial attorney with the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. At Yale Law School, he was senior editor of the Yale Law Journal. He has a master’s degree in divinity from Boston University.