NAACP President Cornell Brooks Speaks on Activism
Issue   |   Tue, 04/04/2017 - 23:42

Cornell Williams Brooks, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), spoke to members of the college community in Johnson Chapel on Friday, March 24.

In his talk, titled “A Woke Democracy,” Brooks discussed contemporary challenges that marginalized groups faced and the need for a multigenerational social justice movement. The event was free and open to the public, and Brooks’ talk was followed by a brief Q&A session.

President Biddy Martin, who introduced Brooks at the talk, wrote in an email interview that she met Brooks and his wife after she gave a talk at Admitted Students Weekend two years ago. After exchanging messages about leadership in the past year, she asked him to speak at Amherst “because of the importance of his position, the reach of his vision and his strong leadership as President and CEO of the NAACP, one of the nation’s oldest civil rights organizations,” she said.

Brooks began by thanking the college’s Black Student Union and members of the NAACP for their work, as well as his wife and two sons for their support.

“We find ourselves tonight as a community [of] students and faculty, as a community of citizens and those who aspire to be citizens, at an anguishing hour of our democracy,” said Brooks. “This is a moment in our democracy in which many are trembling in fear, having survived a presidential campaign in which we saw racism routinized, antisemitism normalized, Islamophobia deexceptionalized and misogyny mainstreamed.”

Brooks cited progress made by activists, particularly young activists, as a reason to be optimistic for the future of the social justice movement. He focused on the advances in movements surrounding criminal justice reform and voting rights.
“In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, the Black Lives Matter movement was born with a hashtag and a visceral commitment to reform, to justice, and predicated with an affection and a love for blackness — not to the exclusion of any other hue or heritage, but with an understanding that unless you love yourself, you are ill-positioned to love anyone else,” said Brooks.

“We’ve seen, in the context of criminal justice reform, literally an army of activists who are calling for us to engage in a reform and revolutionary project in the midst of our democracy, in the midst of our jails [and] in the midst of our prisons,” said Brooks. Young black men, he added, are 21 times more likely to die from police brutality than young white men.

On voting rights, Brooks discussed Shelby v. Holder, a 2013 Supreme Court case that he said allowed for widespread voter disenfranchisement. The case dismantled part of the Voting Rights Act and allowed nine states to make changes to their voting laws without prior federal approval, according to a 2013 New York Times article. He mentioned specific cases in Texas and North Carolina where student activists worked to oppose discriminatory voting laws.

“There’s some … who say, well, we still have voter suppression, we still have racial profiling, we still have police misconduct,” Brooks said. “But may I remind you that in the course of this presidential campaign the NAACP secured nine victories against voter suppression in 10 months. May I remind you that the NAACP marched in Ferguson from the home of Mike Brown to the home of the governor, and we got passed a law capping municipal fines … That’s advocacy.”

Brooks praised activists’ efforts in New Jersey and elsewhere in supporting “ban the box” legislation and bail reform to protect the rights of individuals with criminal records and noted that students played a significant role in these campaigns.
“This is a moment in which we should be encouraged and inspired and believe in young activists,” Brooks said. “We cannot tut-tut and cluck our tongues on the sidelines of history. Why? Because we are mindful of an elder statesman by the name of John Lewis who sat down in the well of the House of Representatives in an act of civil disobedience. But we remember that the elder statesman John Lewis began as a 19-year-old firebrand.”

Following Brooks’ talk, attendees asked him questions that ranged in topic from practical ways to get involved in social justice movements to holding the Amherst administration accountable.