Former NAACP president Cornell William Brooks to examine social justice, human dignity

Not many people have the multitude of experiences they wish they did. As a lawyer, ordained minister, professor and former president and CEO of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks has a plethora of wisdom, advice, knowledge and experience to offer Chautauqua.

Brooks will be giving his lecture, titled “The Moral Inflation of Human Dignity: Race, Repair and Rights,” to continue Week Three of the Interfaith Lecture Series on “The Spirituality of Human Rights,” at 2 p.m. Thursday, July 14, in the Hall of Philosophy.

His main points will cover the dignity of human rights, and protecting the integrity of human beings. He said human rights movements have been reduced to social media phenomenons, such as #BlackLivesMatter and the reaction to the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

“When we see, simultaneously, protesters asserting the dignity of the unborn, we’re also seeing the dignity of women who are grown and born (attacked),” Brooks said. “This is a moment in which people in the midst of this democracy and others feel as though human dignity is under attack and under assault.”

Brooks said while dignity may not be able to be destroyed, it can be diminished, denigrated and desecrated. 

“Life is seen as fragile and tenuous, easily taken,” Brooks said. “In the case of people who were profiled or assaulted on the streets, then the value of human life (and) the value of human dignity is deemed … as being worth more.”

The differences between human rights and social justice is something Brooks compares to the differences between the alphabet and vocabulary of a democratic society.

“Civil rights provides us with the basic alphabet for (a) democratic society,” Brooks said. “Social justice is its vocabulary, the language, the means through which we speak and speak into existence.”

Brooks said regardless of where someone is on the spectrum of religious belief, from devout believer to atheist, it cannot be argued that faith isn’t the base of human rights.

“You can’t ignore the fact that people have faith on the frontlines of social justice in every movement, everywhere around this country and certainly around the world,” Brooks said. “Faith is essential. … You have to have it.”

During his tenure as NAACP president, which he described as a “tumultuous time,” Brooks said he guided the organization through critical social justice movements.

“When I took that job, within eight days, Eric Garner was killed in New York City in a chokehold,” Brooks said. “Within a few weeks, Ferguson exploded, thereafter was (when) Tamir Rice was killed in Cleveland. … Desecrated human beings, hashtag after hashtag, the entire time I was there.”

Brooks organized and led a walk in summer 2015 to demonstrate the urgency of voting rights and police reform. The participants ventured over 1,000 miles from Selma, Alabama, to Washington. He walked alongside a man named Middle Passage, 68, a Navy veteran who carried the American flag the entire journey.

“It began to rain (and) he literally wrapped the flag up so it would be protected from the elements,” Brooks said. “Then the rain stops, the clouds part and he unfurls the flag. As he unfurls the flag he collapses to the ground and has a heart attack.”

The hardest day during his time at the NAACP was explaining to young people in the organization how Passage died and what he stood for.

“The young people asked ‘If a man was willing to march and die for the right to vote, why can’t we fight and vote?’  ” Brooks said. “That is affecting me profoundly, for a couple of reasons. I called for that march, and as a consequence somebody, a friend of mine, literally gave his life. That’s the kind of moral punctuation to the work.”

Brooks attended Jackson State University for his undergraduate education. Jackson State is most commonly, and unfortunately, known for a shooting by police at a dormitory on campus; it was the culmination of tensions between police and local youths that resulted in the death of two young Black men. This shooting occurred in the wake of the 1970 Kent State University shooting during Vietnam War protests, which resulted in the death of four students and the injury of nine by the Ohio National Guard.

Brooks attended Jackson State about 10 years after the shooting and still remembers the ghost-like quality he felt walking across campus.

“Standing on the Gibbs-Green Plaza, looking up to your left, (about) three to four stories up, you can see in the women’s dormitory at the time, Alexander Hall, you can still see bullet holes 10 years later,” Brooks said. “You’re not just walking past the memorials to young people your age, you literally saw the bullet holes made by the weapons (used) to kill them.”

Brooks walked across this plaza every day on his way to class, and he said it’s a reminder that social justice “was a matter and a concern for people my age. I learned that lesson immediately just walking across the plaza, (and it) just affected me profoundly.”

Social justice is also not limited to the race or any other identity that may be under attack. Brooks said for white people to be good allies, they need to act rather than just echoing people of color.

“It’s also a matter of white people telling other white people how to support a movement,” Brooks said. “It’s a matter of white people lending, sharing (and) investing whatever they have in terms of their resources. Then (to realize) the legitimacy and credibility of people of color — realizing and recognizing that people of color can lend credibility and legitimacy to them.”

During his time at Jackson State, Brooks attended a lecture given by a speaker who asked three questions that affected him profoundly, and still do.

“First question he asked, ‘How many of you believe that America, generally speaking, is a great country?’ People raised their hands in the affirmative,” Brooks said. “Then he asked, ‘How many of you have read the Constitution in its entirety?’ No one raised their hands, including me.”

The speaker then asked questions in regard to religion.

“He asked, ‘How many of you believe in God?’ Everybody raised their hand,” Brooks said. “Then he asked, ‘How many of you read the Bible in its entirety?’ No one, including me.”

He then asked how many people believed Martin Luther King Jr. was a great man; everybody raised their hands. Next, he asked how many had read all of King’s books. Again, no one, including Brooks, raised their hand.

“I walked out of that auditorium embarrassed by my own ignorance and resolved to read the Bible from cover to cover, the Constitution in all its entirety (and) Martin Luther King’s books in all their entirety,” Brooks said. “There’s a massive amount of reading with respect to law and prophetic ministry, and in the case of Dr. King and in terms of the Bible, that put me on the path to law and ministry and I’ve been on that path the last several decades.”

Brooks said his hope is that his lecture today lives on, and not just end when he’s done speaking.

“It’s my hope that my few words live in people’s hearts and inspire them in the same way that the thought that I heard many decades ago inspired me and changed my life,” he said.

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The author Kaitlyn Finchler

Kaitlyn Finchler is a journalism and public relations graduate from Kent State University as of May. This will be her second summer at Chautauqua where she will cover literary arts, serving previously as the Interfaith Lecture Series preview reporter. In her free time, you can find her reading, cooking or flipping between “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Gossip Girl.” She’s most excited to see how many times she can slip the word “plethora” into her stories before Sara makes her stop again.