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Minister 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) joined 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 as a civil rights torchbearer; 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.
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.
The events of Ferguson offer a window, Brooks says. After the 2014 shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer, Brooks led a seven-day march, called the Journey for Justice, from the spot where Brown was shot to the governor’s mansion in Jefferson City, Mo., 134 miles away.
It was no coincidence that the march powerfully echoed the Selma to Montgomery marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) in the 1960s after a young black activist was fatally shot by an Alabama state trooper.
And many of the challenges the hundreds of marchers faced were a throwback to the era before desegregation. Marchers were forced to divert their route because of threats of an ambush by the Ku Klux Klan, Brooks says. The tires of support vehicles were slashed along the route, and in the town of Rosebud, Mo., someone placed malt liquor bottles and boxes of fried chicken in the path of marchers.
Last year US Department of Justice lawyers filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Ferguson after finding rampant constitutional violations in the police and court system. Brooks points to the work of activists, who had required the police department to record data, including the race of people in incidents where officers had unleashed police dogs, that helped federal lawyers take legal action about abuses that had destroyed community trust in the system.
“We knew they were being used against African Americans and Latinos,” Brooks says of the use of police dogs. “It made the lawsuit possible.”
Such timely experience will benefit the BU law students who made it into Brooks’ oversubscribed class, says Maureen O’Rourke, dean of LAW. “He brings a unique perspective to both the ethical and statutory interpretations of the law,” she says. “That should be both thought-provoking and instructive for students.”
Prior to his work at the NAACP, Brooks was a senior lawyer at the Federal Communications Commission, where he worked to increase financing to small and minority-owned businesses. He was hired by former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (Hon.’14) when Patrick was an attorney at the Department of Justice. During his stint there as a trial attorney, Brooks won what was then the largest government settlement for victims of housing discrimination, and he filed the first lawsuit against a nursing home alleging discrimination based on race.
Born in Texas and raised in South Carolina, Brooks has even tried his hand at politics, running as a Democrat for a congressional seat in Virginia in 1998, advocating for public education, affordable health care, and fiscal responsibility.
Effective social justice activism is impact-oriented, Brooks says. It also means taking a radical approach in some situations.
In spite of being arrested at Sessions’ Alabama office, Brooks later met Sessions and has talked with him by phone several times after he became attorney general.
That unlikely relationship was key after the shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards in Texas last April by a white police officer. Brooks says he and Sessions discussed how law enforcement should respond in the interest of avoiding another Ferguson.
“The times and the circumstances have conspired to impose on many of us a need to be responsively radical in terms of confronting injustices,” Brooks says of those conversations. It “does not relieve us of the responsibility of being morally responsible. We have to confront the rise of xenophobia, the hate crimes we’ve seen across the country…but we have to be more confrontational in a more constructive way, in a more responsible way.”
Brooks calls his students “prophets in training” and says they will be encouraged to invent new ideas and strategies to combat the racism and injustices marginalized people have long faced. And they must do so in ways that are bigger than a 140-character tweet.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) talked about interdependence as a social justice end,” he says. “What kind of society are we looking to create?”
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at email@example.com.