Cornell William Brooks

Senior Fellow

Cornell William Brooks is a fourth-generation ordained minister, widely-experienced civil rights attorney, and national activist committed to prophetic social justice. Mr. Brooks serves as Senior Fellow at the Brennan Center, addressing both criminal justice and voting rights. He was recently named Visiting Professor of Social Ethics, Law and Justice Movements at Boston University, hosted by both the School of Theology and the School of Law.  Mr. Brooks also serves as Visiting Fellow with the Institute of Politics at Harvard University, directing the program on campaigns and advocacy (Fall 2017) and Senior Research Scholar at Yale Law School (Spring 2018).  He is a regular Contributor for CNN, providing analysis of public affairs, as well as social justice and ethics.

On the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Mr. Brooks was named the 18th President and CEO of the NAACP. With a sacrificially-dedicated executive team and staff, Mr. Brooks led, grew and energized America’s oldest, largest, and most widely recognized civil rights organization amidst generationally unprecedented activism and challenge. 

Under Mr. Brooks’ leadership, the NAACP secured 11 legal victories in 12 months against voter suppression.  Cornell reactivated the legal department by doubling the number of pro bono firms and hours. He called for the impactful Department of Justice pattern and practice law suit, report, and settlement with the Ferguson Police Department following the death of Michael Brown, based upon the racial profiling law drafted and supported by the NAACP. Mr. Brooks also initiated a law suit against government officials and contractors after the Flint Water Crisis. 

Believing that strategic presence in corridors of power and community presence amidst injustice would ensure the NAACP’s credibility and viability, Mr. Brooks led a record number of marches and demonstrations from Ferguson to Flint in hundreds of jurisdictions, engaging a record number of millennials and “pre-millennials.”  He and his colleagues diversified and grew a national coalition to protect the right to vote with the “Democracy Awakening” demonstration and a record 1,400 civil disobedience arrests at the U.S. Capital, which The Nation magazine called “The Most Important Protest of the 2016 Election.”

Mr. Brooks directed a 134-mile “Journey for Justice” march from the Ferguson home of Michael Brown to the state capital home of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, through a racial ambush and bypassing a Klan assault. The “Journey” march and legislative advocacy led to the successful passage of a municipal fine law to decrease racial profiling.

With a broad coalition, Mr. Brooks organized, led and funded the 1002-mile “America’s Journey for Justice” march against voter suppression and police misconduct. Over 43 days and across five states in 100-degree heat, he led an inclusive and interfaith coalition of thousands who marched carrying the American Flag and a Torah from Selma to DC. The march resulted in congressional leadership committing to uniting behind the NAACP-supported bill to protect the vote, the most aggressive version. 

Mr. Brooks also opposed the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to serve as U.S. Attorney General with “neo-old school” social media-driven sit-ins and civil disobedience arrests.  The arrests and sit-ins, covered widely on social and traditional media, became globally viral teach-ins on voter suppression. The sit-ins are credited as energizing the opposition to other anti-civil rights nominees of the Trump administration and social justice “resistance” more broadly.  Thereafter, Mr. Brooks testified before the Senate as one of only a handful of witnesses opposing Senator Sessions, the first such high-profile Senate testimony by the NAACP in years.

Mr. Brooks guided the NAACP in taking a much more visible and vocal stand against racist, Anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and homophobic hate crimes by standing in solidarity with the ADL, Human Rights Campaign and the Reform Action Center. Cornell was the first national leader to call for the removal of the Confederate flag because it inspired the assassination of the Charleston Nine by “racial terrorist” Dylan Roof.

During Mr. Brooks’ tenure, higher profile litigation, advocacy, and messaging resulted in the NAACP being covered not merely as the oldest civil rights organization but increasingly as a more widely engaged organization.  Coverage of the NAACP on traditional and social media reached record levels, exceeding not only past coverage but exceeding many similar national organizations combined. 

Through authentic activism, strategic advocacy, and emphasis on community presence, online NAACP membership grew by 90%, year over year during Mr. Brooks’ tenure. These newer digital members were younger and more racially diverse than the also growing (5%) traditional paper card-carrying members.

After assuming responsibility of lay-off diminished staff as well as a $3-million loss of legal settlement revenue in 2014, together Mr. Brooks and a dedicated team raised $80 million. He eliminated the settlement-deficit in the first year, increased revenue across all categories including an 820% increase in online donations, secured a commitment for the NAACP’s largest planning grant of $1million, recruited and returned lapsed funders, increased new and the number of major donors, and rebuilt a previously skeletal development department.

Immediately prior to coming to the NAACP, Mr. Brooks helmed the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, a statewide “social justice think and do tank,” using applied research, advocacy, demonstration programs, and litigation to address “high risk” urban policy challenges. He and his staff passed six major legislative acts in four years, including two anti-foreclosure bills providing statewide court mediation as well as foreclosure counseling and mitigation.  Moreover, Cornell led a statewide coalition to pass three prisoner reentry bills, said to be a “model for the nation” by The New York Times. He also authored, advocated and secured passage of New Jersey’s “ban the box” law to increase employment opportunities for those with criminal records. This law, supported by business, community and law enforcement stakeholders, was commended by President Barrack Obama as a national model.  

At the Institute, Cornell and staff established and supported the state’s first “community court” while catalyzing the state’s only youth court and first civil pro bono prisoner reentry program.  He executive-produced an award-winning documentary, Moral Panic, generating major foundation support for a Newark-based national gang violence reduction strategy.  Mr. Brooks expanded workforce development programs to move hundreds into higher wage work. He testified before the EEOC on employment barriers. Mr. Brooks launched a unique economic justice study of Superstorm Sandy and an unprecedented “Social Covenant Bond” initiative/research to leverage anchor institutions for employment.  As CEO, Cornell raised over $5 million, while administering an $11 million board-designated endowment and leveraging $5.6 million in pro bono support.

Mr. Brooks previously worked as a Senior Counsel with the Federal Communications Commission, where he worked on legal and policy matters promoting small business and media ownership diversity as well as directed the FCC’s Office of Communication Business Opportunities. Serving in this capacity, he led efforts to increase financing available to small, minority- and woman-owned businesses through regulatory and industry initiatives. Prior to his FCC service, as a U.S. Department of Justice trial attorney, Mr. Brooks secured the then largest government settlement for victims of housing discrimination based on testing and filed the government’s first law suit against a nursing home alleging housing discrimination based on race. His civil rights experience includes serving as Executive Director of the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington and as trial attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. As the Executive Director of the Fair Housing Council, Mr. Brooks oversaw a regional program of fair housing testing and public education in Washington, DC, Northern Virginia, and metropolitan Maryland that served as the basis of impact litigation. In 1998, Mr. Brooks ran as the Democratic Nominee for U.S. Congress for the 10th District of Virginia. As a graduate of both Head Start and Yale, he campaigned as an advocate for public education, affordable healthcare, and fiscal responsibility.

Mr. Brooks earned a Bachelor of Arts, with honors, in political science from Jackson State University and a Master of Divinity from Boston University School of Theology, with a concentration in social ethics and systematic theology. After seminary, Mr. Brooks earned a Juris Doctorate from Yale Law School, where he served as a Senior Editor of the Yale Law Journal and Member of the Yale Law and Policy Review. He held a judicial clerkship with then Chief Judge Sam J. Ervin, III, on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. While studying at Boston University as a Martin Luther King Scholar, Mr. Brooks was awarded both the Oxnam-Leibman Fellowship for outstanding scholarship and promoting racial harmony and the Jefferson Fellowship for outstanding scholarship and excellence in preaching.  His national leadership has been recognized with hundreds of awards as well as honorary doctorates from Boston University, Saint Peter’s University, and Payne Theological Seminary.