He'd been leader of a New Jersey social justice organization since 2008, making inroads on housing and employment issues, when Cornell Brooks, a soft-spoken lawyer and minister, got an opportunity he didn't see coming.
The NAACP, a national organization based in Northwest Baltimore, was looking for a new president. A search committee wanted to talk. He had to decide whether to seek the job as successor to the charming, sometimes controversial Ben Jealous.
A friend remembers telling the 53-year-old Brooks that it might be hard to handle the competing factions within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has a famously unwieldy 64-person board, hundreds of local branches and periodic financial problems.
Brooks paused a moment. "My ancestors were active in this organization," he said, according to Alfred C. Koeppe, a former board member of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which Brooks directs. "I truly care about it. Maybe I'm meant to do this."
Brooks was recently named the NAACP's 18th president, but given his lack of a national profile — some who decided on Brooks only met him last week — questions abound regarding his leadership. Many say he will lead the association at a crucial time, as it clarifies its mission for the 21st century. Will his lack of celebrity be a boon or a hindrance? Can he appease the NAACP's old guard and yet appeal to youth?
Just as important, can he bolster the association's finances? This month, the national office announced that it was laying off 7 percent of its employees. And a recent finance committee forecast obtained by The Baltimore Sun outlines cash flow problems.
Skeptics have criticized Brooks' lack of experience on the national stage. One of them is Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition and a former assistant national director of the NAACP. "I've asked prominent civil rights-ers, [and] to us, Mr. Brooks is a cipher — unknown and untested, hardly a distinguished or likely successor to giants like … Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall," he wrote in a letter to The Sun.
But Brooks' associates say he brings a unique blend of strengths — a minister's empathy, a litigator's mind, a reputation as a strong fundraiser, and a track record of working behind the scenes to bring differing constituencies into agreement.
"He's a man with a lot of compassion," says Sandra Bolden Cunningham, a New Jersey state senator. "He understands the need to continue providing civil rights for those who lack them. And he knows how to make things happen."
The NAACP isn't making Brooks available to the media until July, when he'll be introduced at its annual convention. Many who don't know him wonder if he's up to the task.
Those who do say just wait — any doubters are in for a surprise.
"He's a great advocate," says Koeppe, a former Bell Atlantic New Jersey CEO. "They couldn't have made a better choice."
The NAACP, born in a small New York City apartment in 1909, has long been America's most influential civil rights organization.
Its biggest impact came in the early to mid-20th century, when leaders used activism and litigation to fight Jim Crow laws, help end school segregation and press for civil rights legislation.
As it mushroomed, the organization developed a cumbersome structure encompassing seven U.S. regions, 1,700 branches, a board stocked with veterans of the early battles, and a president/CEO charged with establishing a unified direction.
After a period of financial struggle — during the 1990s, the NAACP slashed its national staff from 252 to 50 — its leaders veered between the traditional behind-the-scenes approach of fundraising and lobbying and a newfangled tack taken by Jealous to court the press, embrace social media and address issues young people care about (racial profiling, the Trayvon Martin case and others).
Balancing such competing interests is crucial for any NAACP president, says David Canton, an associate history professor at Connecticut College who specializes in civil rights. "If you're too activist, some people aren't going to like it. If you're too behind-the-scenes, others won't like that. It's a bit of a catch-22."
Kweisi Mfume, the former Maryland congressman who was NAACP president for nine years, hasn't met Brooks. But whatever style he adopts, Mfume says, it's essential that any president be "an advocate who wakes up every day with a fire in the belly … to ensure equal treatment for all."
Low-profile or not, Cornell William Brooks' life is a testament to that quality.