New Chief: NAACP Is Oldest And Best Civil Rights Organization

The nation's oldest civil rights organization, will begin its annual convention this week under new leadership. Civil rights attorney Cornell William Brooks shares his vision for the organization.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. The nation's oldest civil rights organization the NAACP begins its annual convention tomorrow in Las Vegas. And it does so with new leadership. Civil rights attorney Cornell William Brooks was elected the organizations 18th president this spring. He takes the reins of the group a time when the very definition of civil rights is being challenged and re-imagined and when young people frequently see activism as something that happens online rather than in the streets. In addition to his legal experience Brooks also brings a faith perspective to this new post. He is a fourth generation ordained minister, serving in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. And we're interested in his vision for the organization, so he was nice enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios before he heads out to the convention. So, Conrell William Brooks is with us now. Welcome.

CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

MARTIN: Is it congratulations or condolences?

BROOKS: I would say congratulations and I would say condolences with respect to those who stand in opposition to America's highest values.

MARTIN: What would you say is your top priority?

BROOKS: Well, the threshold challenge is obviously the strengthening of the Voting Rights Act. But there's also an operational challenge, namely reaching out in a multigenerational way and a multiethnic and a multicultural way. So, in other words, the nation's largest, oldest, strongest, most revered civil rights organization is in a place where we want to welcome into the ranks of membership and leadership, a new generation of civil rights leaders. We have done that, throughout the years as you well know, 10 percent of our board seats are reserved for young people.

MARTIN: Let's set aside the reaching out to young people. Let's set aside the membership piece for a minute and just talk about the issue challenge. You mentioned the voting rights issue as the preeminent challenge. Some people don't think that's true. Some people think that it's really education, the quality of education, I mean, Brown v. Board of Education, where the NAACP was a critical factor, if not the critical factor in that - so, some people say, you know, education is the civil rights issue of our time. Not voting rights, voting rights takes care of itself. What's your take on that?

BROOKS: Sure, I would say there's a profound relationship between voting rights and education. As you well know, education in the main takes place at a local level, in terms of funding. And so, your ability to elect local officeholders, municipal officeholders, county officeholders, state officeholders has everything to do with the quality of your schools. And one of the means of doing that is not merely the classroom but the ballot box. Critically important.

MARTIN: By the standard of events that have occurred, where many people who are in the civil rights community, who are involved in civil rights - as it's traditionally understood, you know, voting rights, criminal justice issues, fairness, one could argue that these organizations are in retreat or have failed. If you consider that issues like the stand your ground laws or the duty to retreat laws, which are in the news again because we just observed the one year anniversary of the not guilty verdict in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. If you observe efforts to enhance the requirements for voting in states around the country. One might argue that given the legal initiative all seems to be moving in that direction, then these organizations have failed or are failing.

BROOKS: I would argue - not surprisingly, the exact opposite. So, in the criminal justice realm, while in fact we have these stand your ground laws and much work needs to be done. But let's consider this, when we consider the brutal efficiency of the school to prison pipeline, the fact that we have a U.S. Attorney General who is reassessing this and has thrown his leadership behind dismantling that pipeline. When we think about the fact that we have, ban the box laws, passing all across this country. When you use the words mass incarceration, people know what you mean. The point being here is we're really beginning to make a difference. Let me give you a concrete example. One of every three young people will be arrested by the age of 23...

MARTIN: You mean young people in general? Or do you mean young black people?

BROOKS: Young people in general.

MARTIN: Young people in general.

BROOKS: In general, 1 out of every 4 adults has some kind of a criminal record, 65 million Americans. When you fill out an employment application, quite often you are asked the question, have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. If you check the box yes, no matter how old the crime, how irrelevant the crime, how nonviolent the crime, that will consign your employment application to the circular file...

MARTIN: Even if you...

BROOKS: ...Namely the trash can.

MARTIN: Even if there was no forward movement on the charge? I mean, one can be arrested without a matter of having been adjudicated.

BROOKS: That's precisely it and many employers will simply do a Google search and that will constitute the entirety of the criminal background check. That alone will consign many people to the circular file or the trash can. The fact that we have states all across the country and cities and municipalities passing these laws, has a lot to do with the fact that the NAACP worked with certain national employers to get them to change their policies. Not the least of which would be Wal-mart. We see companies like Target. We see hospitals like the Saint - I should say - the Johns Hopkins Medical Center, which have changed their policies. The point being here is we have a civil rights organization taking a concrete stand, working with companies, working with legislators in very specific ways and then we're beginning to turn the tide in ways, who have a dramatic and profound impact on people seeking work, who have criminal records.

MARTIN: Your predecessor, Ben Jealous, made a point to reach out to LGBT Americans and the organization went on record in support of marriage equality or same-sex marriage. That did not sit well with some of the faith leaders who have been kind of core supporters. And I just wanted to ask you as yourself as an ordained minister, whose book of discipline does not, in your tradition, does not support same-sex marriage, does not support marriage equality and you are now the head of this organization which is on the record in support of this initiative. How do you reconcile those two? Do you feel you even have to?

BROOKS: Well, I don't think there's any necessary conflict between a civil definition of marriage and a theological definition of marriage. Namely churches, synagogues, mosques have traditionally defined marriage in theological terms. That is their right, that is their purview, there's nothing that we're supporting as an organization that would in any way circumscribed or curtail that right. Everyone has that right. But with respect to our country, taking a position on Americans having the right to love whom they love, form families and relationships based upon their rights under the Constitution, the NAACP took a very clear stand. And I will serve my church faithfully. No one has called into question my ability to serve my church as a consequence of taking a very clear position with respect to a right under the Constitution. I don't believe anybody will.

MARTIN: So, you will not be marrying people of the same gender in your capacity. As a minister of the AME church.

BROOKS: Yes.

MARTIN: But you will support the right to marry, in your capacity as president of the NAACP .

BROOKS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: How does that sit with you?

BROOKS: I'll put it this way. I believe in the work that I'm doing as a civil rights lawyer. I serve my church and I've tried to serve my church well and faithfully. I'm not trying to square every civil rights position with every theological position of the church. I don't think, I don't think anyone could do that and do it well. You either have the time to do one and not the other or the other, not the other.

MARTIN: It's a complicated question. But there are a number of organizations that have a rich legacy, that people feel, you know, proud of or happy to know about, are glad they did what they did, but just people just don't see as being really relevant to what they're doing today. Many people feel the same way about their faith organizations, that they grew up in. For example many people are glad they grew up in church but they don't go now. They think that's nice, that's for my parents. That has nothing to do with me. And I'm sure some people feel that same way about the NAACP. Is that OK with you, if that's the future or if that's not the future you see?

BROOKS: It's not the future at all. The NAACP will never be an anachronism. The NAACP will never be a relic of a bygone era. All I would say to you is this, you ask any young person who's ever been stopped and frisked, is the NAACP relevant. Ask any middle-class professional, African-American, who's ever been detained, not because they're driving recklessly but because they're driving a nice car, an Audi, a Mercedes Benz. Ask anyone who's ever been a victim of housing discrimination, the kind of people I used to represent at the Justice Department and they'll tell you, that the NAACP is relevant now. It is not a creature of history.

MARTIN: How do you account for something like, speaking of housing discrimination, something like the Los Angeles chapter giving an award to Donald Sterling. The once and possibly still owner of the Los Angeles Clippers? When there was a demonstrated record of his having discriminated against people of color. How does something like that - and not only that, his own coach and general manager who sued him, even though he lost but makes the same kinds of allegations that have now come to the floor, about this very disrespectful, demeaning attitude toward blacks and Latinos. How does something like that happen?

BROOKS: Clearly that was a mistake. It was a mistake. But I think it's also important for us to take note of this. When you think about a young baseball player by the name of Jackie Robinson, who for over a decade raised money for the NAACP to open the doors, with respect to not only diversity on the field but diversity in the front office. The NAACP has long been the means by which sports, entertainment, business in this country have been opened up to people from all walks of life. And so, in terms of Mr. Sterling, nothing can justify that. But what's really important for us to keep in mind is - that was one mistake. It didn't obliterate the record.

MARTIN: Why did you want to do this job?

BROOKS: I love this organization. I love the work that it represents. Growing up as a little boy in Georgetown, South Carolina, I had a grandfather. And my grandfather ran for Congress in the wake of the Smith versus Allwright Supreme Court decision outlawing the all-white Democratic Primary. He did that because he believed in the NAACP and wanted to excite people and engage people, to enter the ranks of what I believe to be the greatest band of the freedom fighters this country, and this world has ever known, namely the NAACP. Talk to people who find themselves made vulnerable by people who are trampling upon their rights and ask them the first name that they think of when it comes to protecting their rights. That name would be the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

MARTIN: Cornell William Brooks is the new president and CEO of the NAACP. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Mr. Brooks, Reverend Brooks, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BROOKS: Thank you.

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