The Root Interview With NAACP's New President Cornell William Brooks

The human rights activist and lawyer becomes the 18th president of the nation's oldest civil rights organization.

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Cornell William Brooks, incoming president and CEO of the NAACP, and Roslyn M. Brock, chairman of the NAACP national board of directors

NAACP

The NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization, has named Cornell William Brooks its 18th president and chief executive officer. The New Jersey-based civil rights lawyer, human rights activist and ordained minister, replaces interim leader Lorraine C. Miller, who filled the vacancy created by Benjamin Jealous' departure at the end of 2013.

"With a flood of attacks on our right to vote, growing gaps in education and health equality and a broken criminal justice system," Roslyn Brock, chairman of the NAACP's national board, told The Root Saturday during a phone interview about the announcement. "We believe that attorney Brooks is the right person at the right time to help us harness the power of our 2,200 NAACP units across the country as we continue to advance our mission."

Brooks, who also spoke to The Root,  called himself a "servant leader." He plans to spend the next few months on a listening tour of the organization. He is slated to take up his post in July, when he will be officially introduced to the NAACP organization at its convention.

"As someone who is a serious student of the freedom struggles of this country and abroad, I bring to the task a scholarly commitment without necessarily having any particular scholarly pretensions," he said. "I think the best thing that can be said is that if I'm effective at communicating and inspiring, it's because I work really really hard at listening and learning as much as I can about the people that I'm charged with serving."

For the past six years, Brooks has served as president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, where he has worked on legislation related to prison reentry and to foreclosures. Some of that work involved a partnership with the NAACP. The South Carolina native has been a member of the NAACP since college. As a civil rights lawyer, he has worked with NAACP branches on fair housing litigation. He is also a former attorney for the Federal Communications Commission.

Besides the ongoing fight over voting rights, Brooks commented on a number of other issues facing the NAACP, including Saturday's 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Resegregation of schools

"As a graduate of both Yale Law School and Head Start, I am an heir, beneficiary, a grandson of Brown v. Board of Education. My entire life and the arc of my professional career are a direct result of the blood, sweat and tears of the NAACP. So today, I am profoundly mindful of how much I owe the association and how much I owe the country in receiving this great opportunity."

"When we think about the fact that the level of segregation in this country is about the level it was in 1968, it underscores the necessity for the NAACP."

Relevance to a younger generation

"We need only look at the dawn of the modern-day civil rights movement, look at the ages of those who engaged in those struggles, to understand that the new MLKs, the new Rosa Parks, if you will, are before us. They're living in the towns and communities all across the country, and many of them are involved in the membership of the NAACP. I would expect to continue those efforts, to intensify those efforts and to work with the board, the staff and the membership to recruit the next legion of civil rights leaders."

Coalition with LGBTQ community

"I fully support the game changers. I fully support the vision and strategic plan of the NAACP. And the NAACP, as you know, since its founding 105 years ago has always represented a profoundly American coalition of inclusion. So we are no less inclusive today than we were 105 years ago."

Donald Sterling fallout

Brooks deferred to Brock when asked about the recent scandal involving former Los Angeles NAACP Chapter President Leon Jenkins, who resigned over plans to give a lifetime achievement award to embattled LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

"We have addressed the issue of Donald Sterling," Brock said, noting that the award to Sterling, who has been accused of being racist, had been withdrawn.

As for repairing the group's image for offering the award in the first place, she added, "We certainly believe there is work to be done, and under attorney Brooks' leadership we will begin that work to repair the breach."

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