First Responders to Injustice: An Interview with Cornell William Brooks (’87, Hon.’15)

in Alumni/ae News, focus magazine, Media, News
May 2nd, 2018

As part of our 2018 issue of focus magazine, visiting professor of social ethics, law, and justice movements Cornell William Brooks recently sat down with focus editor Julie Butters to discuss today’s moral leaders, his students here at Boston University, and hope for the future. 

Photo by Dave Green for Boston University Photography

Photo by Dave Green for Boston University Photography

First Responders to Injustice

Today’s civil rights crises call seminarians to bold public leadership, says former NAACP President Cornell William Brooks (’87, Hon.’15)

By Julie Butters

Too often, says Cornell William Brooks (’87, Hon.’15), moral leaders aren’t engaged in critical policy work against injustice: they may lack self-confidence, or bow to political pressure. Brooks—a civil rights leader and former president of the NAACP—recently taught an STH and School of Law class, Violence, the Vote, and Hope: An Examination of Ethics, Law and Justice Movements, as the visiting professor of social ethics, law, and justice movements for 2017–2018. He spoke with focus about training a new generation of seminarians to engage in policy, and demonstrate the prophetic moral leadership needed to meet today’s sociopolitical and civil rights challenges.

focus: What do you hope students learn from your class?

Brooks: The class last semester formally focused on the right to vote and to be free from violence. But it was also a seminar on the leadership of justice movements. We looked at moral leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59). We looked at moral leaders in the contemporary context: 15-year-olds who faced tear gas and arrest for protesting police misconduct and brutality. My aspiration was to convince a group of seminarians that they have not only the moral legitimacy, but the policy expertise to go beyond the stained-glass boundaries of the Church and into the sphere of public policy, public debate, voting rights, civil rights, and police misconduct. When there’s a major civil rights crisis, governors, mayors, senators, and congressional representatives call on clergy first. When you have people who are at odds with each other, who want to take up arms out of frustration, it’s the clergy who have the legitimacy to say, “Wait and discuss.” How many times do you walk into a situation where the problem is not that you lack options, it’s that there’s a lack of a moral imagination to actually use the options? Seminarians are trained to walk into situations and inspire people.

How do your students’ views on leadership compare with those you and your fellow students had at STH?

This Twitter-age generation of activists is much more sophisticated in their messaging and much more global in their understanding of the interrelatedness of injustices. They see the relationship between [racial profiling and police violence in] Ferguson and the Netherlands, the relationship between the alt-right in the United States and white nationalism and ultra-nationalism in Europe. They see the relationship between postcolonialism and the excesses of over-militarized police departments.

On the flip side, there’s been talk about “slacktivism,” where people say, “I commented on that post, so I’ve done my duty in standing up for what’s wrong.” How do you see technology helping or hindering leadership?

The major challenge is that we conflate models of communication with models of leadership. Knowing how to post, tweet, and retweet is different from knowing how to organize a meeting, nurture and encourage and nudge people, and from understanding the importance of not merely the eloquence of speech, but the eloquence of example. As a leader, your job is not merely to communicate effectively, but to model effectively and get people to follow you effectively, which is a matter of deep sacrifice.

In terms of the role of “slacktivism,” we conflate communication with participation: having communicated the message, we assume that we’ve had an impact on the goal. I can’t tell you the number of times where the assumed goal of activism is the expression of outrage as opposed to determination of outcome. When civil rights activists engaged in marches from Selma to Montgomery, everyone understood that they were marching for voting rights. Today, ask people walking away from a mass gathering, “What’s the policy objective here?” Far too often, people understand what they’re upset about but are less clear about what they want.

That’s not an indictment of people; it has everything to do with the way we prepare for leadership. In the same way that a pastor building a church might become familiar with the ins and outs of a commercial loan, the next generation of religious leaders has to get smart when it comes to policy, and have the intellectual self-confidence to do that. The same folks who can master Aristotelian ethics have the intellectual capability of understanding, “What do we want in terms of ending voter suppression? How do we end police misconduct? How do we bring about fairer policies with respect to immigration or the Dreamers?” You can’t tell me that the school that was home to Howard Thurman (Hon.’67) and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anna Howard Shaw (1878, MED 1886) and Harrell Beck (’45, GRS’54) doesn’t have people walking out of here who can be on the front lines of moral leadership as it relates to policy. Because in this diverse democracy, prophetic leadership without policy is vacuous. Railing against injustices from the mountaintop without deigning to get down into a state legislature is just moral entertainment.

Your students have been tasked with coming up with solutions to today’s injustices. Have they brought to light any ideas that you’re excited about?

In response to police misconduct, one student suggested having chaplains not merely to comfort police officers under stress or civilians in distress, but as moral leaven in the bread: being agents of community policing, a prophetic voice from within.

There was one student who not only called for people with felony convictions to have the right to vote, but that they be counted in their home jurisdictions, so that you don’t have a situation where, when prisoners return home, their communities are relatively un-resourced because the population is being counted elsewhere.

We had students who framed police misconduct as lynching. Many years ago, civil rights activist Ida B. Wells made the argument that if a police department loses someone in their custody to a lynch mob, the police department should be held accountable. The students were making the argument that if a police department loses a civilian in their care to police misconduct, they should be held accountable—with the assumption being that police misconduct is not the inevitable result of aggressive policing, but almost always an example of the failure of policing.

A number of students made recommendations about how to increase the value of people who are often regarded as the expendable byproduct of public safety. Quite often, the way the law reads is that a police officer’s subjective assessment of dangerousness is enough to justify almost any action: “You cause me to be fearful, therefore I’m entitled to take out my revolver and shoot you.” And so you had students saying, “We have to help police departments understand that these are not merely civilians, these are children of God, and this moral evaluation should upend the assumptions behind policing.” It’s not merely a matter of community policing, it’s not merely a matter of having police officers play basketball with children; it’s a matter of them fundamentally grasping the humanity of the people they’re policing.

What will it take to bring about these solutions, and what kind of leaders will be needed?

I think it will be leaders who are culturally multilingual—able to converse and engage many communities, for which seminarians are ideally suited. It will require leaders who are multilingual in terms of discipline: they understand ethics and theology and Church history and the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, but they’re also at least conversationally literate when it comes to the prevailing social injustices of the day. When Dr. King was here, he studied Boston Personalism, but he was also conversant with civil rights challenges as they related to public accommodations—like people having to sit in the back of the bus—and voting rights; he understood we need people to monitor the polls.

So, we need leaders who are multilingual in terms of policy and discipline, multilingual in terms of culture, and we can’t raise up leaders who are risk-averse. And I mean risking one’s career, risking one’s church or parish, risking one’s life—I dare say that. That’s something we don’t always talk about in terms of leadership. We teach Dr. King’s ethics in theology, but we shy away from his biography. We don’t necessarily talk about the fact that in his last years of life, he was near-suicidal. We don’t talk about the despondency and the despair, the death threats, being harassed by the FBI. Those are real risks. I say that not because any moral leader should willingly seek that degree of sacrifice or pain, but we have to be clear that if you’re on the front lines of social justice, at some point in a 20-, 30-, 40-year ministry, the work will be difficult.

The fact that you have a generation of seminarians who are looking for a wide variety of ministry placements—not just churches, synagogues, and mosques, but also social service and philanthropic organizations—I think that’s encouraging. But given the speed with which our country is changing, the global economy is changing, the nature of work is changing, seminaries, like every other professional school, are struggling to keep up. The redefinition of our work has all kinds of implications for how we train people. When I was in seminary, we didn’t spend any time thinking about philanthropy, how to raise money. We spent a great deal of time discussing racial justice, liberation theology, women’s theology, but we spent no time that I can recall actually talking about civil rights, the Fair Housing Act, the Civil Rights Act, fair employment, the death penalty, or the policy and law around the treatment of women. Imagine today having a class in feminism or womanist ethics or theology and not discussing the #MeToo movement, and not discussing law and policy around sexual harassment. Not having that policy granularity is impossible now.

If that policy element is woven into the classroom, where could that lead America in the short term?

I believe that when you have people on the forefront of leadership who have the most moral credibility and the policy literacy to lead the debate, you get the country to where it should be faster. Let me give you an example. When it comes to making loans, banks have very sophisticated formulas for determining who’s a good credit risk, but they often mask discrimination, because how do we count assets? What do you count as income? When you assess the value of a house, do we take into consideration that because of discrimination, certain communities don’t have capital, and that because they don’t have capital, home values are not as high, therefore the likelihood of getting more capital in those communities is not as high? We don’t. It’s the clergy who are able to say, “Discrimination is wrong. You must do something about that.”

Too often, folks with the most moral credibility find themselves on the policy periphery. You see moral leaders being co-opted by the left and the right all the time. They use them for their legitimacy, they use them to keep the peace without pursuing justice. And in part, they do it by saying, “Allow us to handle the legal details. Allow us to handle the policy details.” I’ve even seen more than a few of our clergy brethren and sistren who say, “I don’t have confidence I can hold my own in those circles,” not realizing you don’t have to have a PhD in public policy to be elected to Congress or to serve in the White House.

It sounds like you are feeling encouraged by what you’re seeing at STH, that it gives you some hope.

Most definitely. You have a more diverse group of students coming to seminary now—and diverse not only ethnically, but diverse in terms of their background. This is a moment of maximum peril and maximum opportunity. This is a moment where the graduates of this school can most define the prophetic legacy of the school. This generation’s level of activism is unprecedented. And I can tell you this: when I was at the NAACP, I remember being in Ferguson at 2 o’clock in the morning and seeing students from this school in the street. I can remember seeing some of those same students when we marched around the country. I think that speaks well of the school.

What inspires you to continue your work as a leader?

I like to remind myself hope is a moral choice; it’s not empirically obvious. At any given point in history, a compelling case could be made for despair. We choose to believe. And so my choice is, when I look at this Joshua generation[1] of leaders, when I look at the diversity, the moral enthusiasm, that gives me hope. I think about the fact that some of the most dim and dark chapters of American history have also been ones in which the chapters concluded with a bright dawn.

In 2018, we have any number of civil rights activists who wring their hands and say, “It’s highly unlikely that this Congress will ever address voter suppression.” Note this: In 1965, we had the marches from Selma to Montgomery, and we had the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Now, of course, that was preceded with decades of advocacy, but it does speak to the fact that when you have a determined and prophetic few who are willing to speak to the many, great reform is possible, and I believe that we have that here, and certainly in my class.

I told my students on the first day of class, “You don’t have to wait until the geriatric crowd hands over the reins of leadership; that is not your generational fate.” I ask them to think of a woman like Pauli Murray, a student in Howard University Law School [in the 1940s] and the only woman in her class, who told her professor and classmates that we could defeat Jim Crow in a matter of years, and that we could take on this doctrine of “separate but equal.” They laughed at her. But her term paper, which she subsequently turned into a book, was used as a roadmap for Brown v. Board of Education. On that first day of class, I told my students, “Pauli Murray wrote a term paper that changed American history. I expect no less in this class. We do not need to be morally timid; we need to be morally ambitious, because you have no idea of the power of your own ideas unless you make the assumption that you can, in fact, change the world.”

This interviewed has been condensed and edited for clarity.

[1] President Barack Obama, “Remarks at the Selma Voting Rights March Commemoration in Selma, Alabama” (speech, Selma, Alabama, March 4, 2007), The American Presidency Project,, accessed March 11, 2018.