Then-President Bill Clinton receives applause during his address in July 2000 at the 91st convention of the NAACP in Baltimore. Looking on at right is then-NAACP Chairman Julian Bond. 
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Philadelphia, Wed., July 15: In an address to the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, former President Bill Clinton offered a mea culpa for signing a criminal-justice reform bill into law during his two-term presidency.

“I signed a bill that made the problem worse. And I want to admit it,” Clinton said at the 106th NAACP National Convention, which concluded Wednesday in Philadelphia. “In that bill, there were longer sentences, and most of these people are in prison under state law, but the federal law set a trend. And that was overdone; we were wrong about that.”

Clinton’s comments came a day after President Barack Obama addressed NAACP delegates. Earlier in the week, Obama commuted the prison sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, saying that they were not “hardened criminals” and that their long sentences didn’t fit the crimes.

It’s unclear if Clinton’s confession will help his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is running for president in 2016. Neither Hillary Clinton nor any of her Republican or Democratic rivals attended the five-day convention.

But some conventiongoers were suspicious about Clinton’s motives.

“His record as it relates to the criminal-justice system was hardly stellar, and he’s been quite silent on many of these issues since he left office,” said David Perry. “I’m not being cynical, but you have to wonder if this is an attempt by Bill Clinton to salvage black votes for his wife.”

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In an interview with The Root, NAACP President Cornell William Brooks said that reforming the criminal-justice system has been one of the NAACP’s major goals for years. He said that ending racial profiling and tackling mass incarceration will undoubtedly become major topics in next year’s presidential debates.

“This set of issues is not popular with everyone, but they are morally critical to everyone,” Brooks said. “After a generation of mass incarceration, we come to a point where we are beginning to see a convergence of wishes on criminal-justice reform, the likes of which we have not seen. We are seeing fiscal conservatives, social progressives coming together on this issue.”

Next month, Brooks will lead America’s Journey for Justice, an 860-mile march from Selma, Ala., to Washington, D.C., in an effort to train a spotlight on the criminal-justice system, voter disenfranchisement, high unemployment and inequities in public education. 

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At the same time, Brooks said that the civil rights group has to be more intentional about bringing younger activists into the fold.

“This is not just about social media. We do that,” he said. “This is about authentic leadership. This is about being in dialogue with young people.”

For years, NAACP officials have struggled over how best to counter criticisms that the organization founded in 1909 by W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells and others has lost its relevance and its connection with the younger generation.

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“We have to have an eclectic, ecumenical movement,” said Brooks, 54, who was appointed president last year to replace the organization’s youngest leader, Benjamin Todd Jealous, who served the organization for five years. “Bree Newsome climbs a flagpole. We maintained a boycott. I believe the look of a multigenerational army of activists is a powerful look and a powerful reality.”

But that was a lesson that even Brooks had to learn in Ferguson, Mo., in the days after Michael Brown’s death.

“In Ferguson, at a community meeting, the young people noticed that everyone onstage was over 35 and everyone in the audience was under 35, so they took the stage,” Brooks recalled. “I got heckled. I got booed with Cornel West. Was that a pleasant, pretty moment? No. But I remembered what it was like at that age, and I didn’t particularly appreciate people lecturing to me in a way that I deemed to be intellectually condescending.”

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During a planned NAACP march from Ferguson to the state Capitol in Jefferson City to protest Brown’s death, Brooks urged young protesters not to use their mobile devices to film the march, in fear that the marchers would anger white supremacist groups. The young protesters ignored Brooks’ plea and filmed the march and uploaded the footage to the Internet.

“They were right and I was wrong, because when people saw what happened, they realized that the NAACP, as one young brother put it, is gangsta,” said Brooks. “What that said to me was that we can’t just talk about it, we have to show it. And the way we show it is sometimes risky.”

Brooks said that legislation that calls for the end of racial profiling and body cameras on police officers are issues that can unite activists across generations.

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“The NAACP is about putting boots on the ground and laws on the books,” he said. “But we also have to be present on the issues that young people care about. We have to authenticate our words and our platform with deeds. And that requires courage and risk.”

Jamal Watson is the senior staff writer for Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and the author of a forthcoming biography of the Rev. Al Sharpton. Follow him on Twitter.