Q&A with former NAACP president Cornell William Brooks

by Eileen Brady | 1/31/20 2:00am

Civil rights attorney and ordained minister Rev. Cornell William Brooks is a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, the director of the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School and a former president of the NAACP. He visited Dartmouth last weekend as the keynote speaker at the Tucker Center Martin Luther King Multifaith Celebration. The Dartmouth sat down with Brooks to learn more about his past experiences, advice for student activists and perceptions about the civil rights movement today.

What has Martin Luther King, or his work, meant to you? 

CWB: When I was in college, I listened to a speaker who spoke to an auditorium with 200 or 300 people, and he asked the students three questions. “How many of you believe America’s a great country?” Everyone raised their hand. He asked, “How many of you have read the Constitution in its entirety?” No one had. He asked, “How many of you believe in God?” Everyone raised their hands. Then he asked, “How many of you have read the Bible?” And he meant the Christian Bible, in its entirety. No one. Then the last question he asked was, “How many of you believe that Dr. King was a great man?” Everyone raised their hand. And then he asked, “How many of you read all of his books?” No one. And so I left the room with a deep sense of shame and embarrassment, but also a profound sense of determination to read all of Dr. King’s books, the Constitution and the Bible — all of which set me on a path to ministry as a form of social justice. 

Was that mainly what inspired you to get involved with civil rights, or were there other motivations?

CWB: Every day in college, I had to walk across what you would call The Green or a quad, and there were statues of two students who were killed in the 1970s during the time of the Kent State massacre. You had Kent State, but people sometimes forget Jackson State, which was my undergraduate college. So I had to walk past this memorial of students my age — one of whom was a high schooler, the other was a college student — who were killed when police came onto our campus in the midst of a demonstration. So those kinds of things really motivated me and inspired me to try to make the activism of my youth not just like a youthful hobby but a lifelong endeavor. 

You’ve had a very diverse set of experiences. What is something you never thought you’d be doing?

CWB: I never expected to be a minister. The reason is that my great grandfather was a minister. My grandfather, my great, great grandfather — all ministers. And so I really didn’t want to be one. I also thought the church was socially anachronistic. I didn’t really appreciate the intellectual depth of ministry. And so I just kind of thought this is a backward institution that is behind the times, socially irrelevant — and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I really wanted to be a social justice warrior. I wanted to do civil rights. But the thing that was surprising is, by reading out the King, I was coming intellectually and philosophically face-to-face with someone who did have that intellectual death — who was, way before the term was coined, woke, in a multidimensional sense. Woke intellectually, philosophically, but also somebody who was willing to put his life on the line. 

During your time as president of the NAACP, you faced tensions between the older, more established NAACP organization and the newly formed, generally younger Black Lives Matter Movement. Can you address this divide and the implications it might have for the future of the civil rights movement?

CWB: It’s dangerous to have people affected by the problem divided by age and experience. Here’s why: So I’m not 19, but I’ve been picked up by the police many times. I’ve been patted down. Right out of Yale Law School, a police officer stopped me in front of the U.S. Capitol. I got out of my car to find out what was wrong. He asked me for my ID; I gave it to him. While he was talking to me, I reached for my glasses; he reached for his gun. That’s happened many times. And so what I’m saying is that many people are affected by issues that some young people think only they are affected by. Young people have the energy and fierceness and perspective. Older people have networks and money. So once you protest the injustice in the streets and you need to meet with the senator, who makes the meeting? When you need to get the governor in the room, who does that?

At the Tucker Center Martin Luther King Multifaith Celebration, you mentioned the protests in Baltimore following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray and noted that you chose not to call the events “riots” at the time and instead to categorize them as a “prophetic uprising,” given that the vast majority of people were not violent. During those events, however, 113 police officers and many others were injured. Is there a point at which violence must be called out for what it is, regardless of intentions?

CWB: The thing that I wanted to lift up in my speech was that 99.9 percent of the people were not engaged in the violence, and that’s the case all across the country. And here’s the thing; it was also this kind of generational condemnation. It’s like, if you’re young and you’re in the street at two o’clock in the morning, the presumption is you must be willing to throw them all Molotov cocktail through a window. That’s not the case. Now you have people who are bystanders, they’re onlookers, they’re curious — and then you have kids who get caught up in the moment. But to categorize aberrant, episodic, regrettable and condemnable violence as being emblematic of an entire movement — let’s think about when Dr. King went to Memphis, his last trip to Memphis where he was assassinated. Why was he there? He was there because a group of young people lost discipline and engaged violence, and the march that he went to support got out of control. So then he goes back to Memphis to do it again. The point being here is, yes, there are times when people lose control. There are times when there is violence. Generally speaking, those aren’t the people that the organizers are organizing.

My point is, all violence is bad. It should always be called out and condemned, but there should be some proportionality. In other words, don’t beat up young people and then excuse older people for their routinized, systematized and legally closeted and protected violence. 

On Feb. 11, many Dartmouth students will cast their votes in the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. What do you think Dartmouth students should be considering as they vote? What we can take from Dr. King as we head to the polls?

CWB: I would say, first of all, appreciate the moral importance of your vote. I don’t know what the numbers are at Dartmouth, but I was shocked at Harvard that voting participation was far below 50 percent. It was absolutely shocking to me. At Dartmouth, I suspect you may have the same challenge. What I would like to suggest is that no one should celebrate Dr. King without celebrating on his birthday and voting on the day he literally sacrificed much of his life for — namely, election day. You’ve got to vote.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.