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NAACP President and CEO to Receive Honorary Doctor of Laws

Civil rights leader Cornell Brooks (STH’87) will deliver Baccalaureate address


It is not an overstatement to say that Cornell William Brooks is among the nation’s most important leaders and an increasingly high-profile voice for justice as America’s racial divide dominates the headlines. President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the nation’s oldest, largest, and most widely respected grassroots-based civil rights organization, Brooks will be awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws at BU’s 142nd Commencement.

A lawyer and fourth-generation ordained minister, Brooks (STH’87) says his broad, scholarly perspective was ignited in large part by his experience at BU, whose alumni include his role models Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) and Marsh Chapel Dean Howard Thurman (Hon.’67), the first black dean at a predominantly white American university. Brooks will deliver the Baccalaureate address at Marsh Chapel the morning of May 17.

A graduate of Yale Law School, Brooks considers himself “a grandson, heir, and beneficiary” of the 1954 landmark US Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, declaring unconstitutional state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students. He has worked as a civil rights attorney, a social justice advocate, and a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Inspired by his grandfather’s example, he ran as the Democratic nominee for the US House of Representatives from Virginia’s 10th District in 1998, advocating for public education, affordable health care, and fiscal responsibility. “My grandfather, James Edmund Prioleau, ran for Congress in the 1940s, not because he thought he could win, but because he thought it would encourage blacks to enlist in the ranks of the best, most powerful group of freedom fighters in the United States—the NAACP,” says Brooks, who was named president of the NAACP in May 2014. “This job is in my familial DNA, and really it’s the best job you can possibly have, in an extraordinary rights organization at an extraordinary moment in history.”

As a former US Department of Justice junior attorney, he worked there with 2014 Commencement speaker Deval Patrick (Hon.’14), who would go on to become two-term governor of Massachusetts. Brooks came to the NAACP from his post as president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. There he was instrumental in legislation that enabled formerly incarcerated persons to rebuild their lives, helped reduce juvenile detention rates in New Jersey to historic lows, and developed workforce training programs that placed more than 500 low-income residents in higher-wage jobs.

While serving in previous positions with the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department, Brooks worked on efforts as varied as promoting small business and media ownership diversity, increasing financing for minority- and women-owned businesses, and helping victims of housing discrimination obtain settlements. Referring to the NAACP as the nation’s “primary care physician” when it comes to issues of social justice, Brooks led a march for justice across Missouri last December in the wake of the shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown, by a police officer in that state last summer. Since that incident and its volatile aftermath, Americans have seen a succession of similar episodes, most recently the death of Freddie Gray, a black Baltimore resident who died from a head injury while in police custody. Six police officers were indicted in the case.

“The NAACP applauds Maryland State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby for taking this bold and important first step toward justice for Freddie Gray,” says Brooks. “The NAACP has been committed to the fight against racial profiling and police brutality throughout our 106-year history, and with this indictment, we will continue our work locally, statewide, and nationally on criminal justice reform, including passage of the End Racial Profiling legislation. We invoke the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, and so many other great practitioners of democracy and peace. We are grateful for the courage and tenacity of Freddie Gray’s family, whose quiet resolve is helping to shape a national movement for all of America’s children.”

In addition to a JD from Yale, Brooks earned a BA in political science, with honors, from Jackson State University, and in 1987, a Master of Divinity from the Boston University School of Theology.

This year’s other BU honorary degree recipients are journalist and TV host Meredith Vieira, who will give the Commencement address, Doctor of Humane Letters; trustee Allen Questrom (Questrom’64) and his wife, Kelli Questrom, whose record $50 million gift to BU this spring will expand the Questrom School of Business, Doctor of Humane Letters; and jazz promoter, producer, and Grammy winner George Wein (CAS’50), Doctor of Humane Letters.

More information about Commencement can be found here.

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