Former NAACP Head Examines Ethics, Law, and Justice Movements

Cornell William Brooks (STH’87, Hon.’15) an STH and LAW visiting professor.

Cornell W. BrooksMinister and lawyer Cornell William Brooks, former president of the NAACP, can add a new title to the list: professor.

One of the foremost civil rights leaders in the United States, Brooks (STH’87, Hon.’15) joins Boston University this fall at a critical time. Hate crimes are on the rise, and racially polarizing politics have further stoked conflict as social media radically alters how Americans get their news.

Now a School of Theology and School of Law visiting professor of social ethics, law, and justice movements, Brooks is teaching the course Violence, the Vote, and Hope: An Examination of Ethics, Law and Justice Movements.

“One of the things I look forward to doing in this class is making sure everything in your Twitter feed is not all you see in an issue,” he says. “Part of what I want to teach is that it’s one thing to have social media savvy, to be Twitter-famous, and it’s another thing—but not necessarily the same thing—to be an effective social justice advocate.”

Brooks has operated at the forefront of activism; as president of the NAACP, he took to the streets to lead a march in Ferguson, Mo., in late 2014 and was arrested during a sit-in protesting Donald Trump’s nomination of Jeff Sessions, then a US senator from Alabama, as US attorney general. But activism itself is also changing in the digital age, with the rise of social media and the emergence of new activist groups like Black Lives Matter. In May, after three years as president of the NAACP, Brooks was dismissed in what the group’s national advisory board said was a needed “system-wide refresh.”

The NAACP still has his respect, he says, but its management structure, with a sprawling board of more than 60 advisors, means “suboptimal governance, to say the least.” And he says that teaching will allow him to expand on his work at the NAACP by training the next generation of leaders. His Tuesday night course, open only to theology and law students, will explore the meaning of effective advocacy, whether from the streets, the pulpit, or the courtroom.

Even the most secular Americans, Brooks says, “like the idea we are all bound together by something more than naked self-interest.”

Mary Elizabeth Moore, dean of the School of Theology, says Brooks understands both the complex history and the on-the-ground realities of justice movements in the United States.

“His own justice work emerges from deep commitments, formed through human relationships and serious study of theology and law,” Moore says. “He shows us what it means to be a centered human being, ardently advocating for justice and respecting the dignity of all persons. We are extremely grateful for his presence with us.”

Brooks, whose youngest child is a high school senior, lives just outside Washington, D.C. He will fly to Boston to teach the course, and stay in faculty housing close to where he lived when he was a theology grad student 30 years ago.

Those years at BU almost never happened. Brooks says he wanted to attend law school, deviating from the path of several generations of ministers preceding him in his family. At a crossroads, he ended up doing both—graduating from BU, the nation’s oldest seminary of American Methodism, in 1987 and from Yale Law School three years later. It was his study at BU, he says, that was especially formative, because he learned moral risk-taking and courage.

“The vision that’s guided me as a civil rights leader and lawyer really started at BU,” he says.

It is a vision of practical, responsible, yet radical activism.

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