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.
He was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1961, the offspring of three generations of ministers, and grew up in small-town South Carolina. Brooks tells friends he graduated from Head Start and Yale Law School — one reason, perhaps, friends like Cunningham say he's comfortable talking with people at all levels of society.
Brooks, a married father of two, has said he had no interest in the ministry as a boy — he focused on a law career — but in time came to view the fields as complementary.
"I always thought the law was an incredibly powerful profession, and as a tool for social justice, it is incomparable," he told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2008. "But as I matured, I began to appreciate my family history and … just how relevant the ministry is to questions of justice and peace."
He earned a Master of Divinity degree from Boston University, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man Brooks has called his hero, and graduated from Yale Law School the same week he was ordained a minister.
For an aspiring activist, that's a potent blend.
"Maybe one reason [he was chosen to head the NAACP] is that he has access to both those important professions in the African-American community," says Canton, citing the historic roles played by attorneys such as Marshall, a Baltimore native, and ministers such as King.
Early on, Brooks clerked with Chief Judge Sam Ervin III on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit and served as a trial attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. He later worked as a senior counsel for the Federal Communications Commission and headed the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington.
Newspapers from the 1990s take occasional note of a young man who testified against a bank that kept its doors locked until it could visually size up customers ("a thick-skulled policy," Brooks called it), fought for diversity in small business, and won settlements for victims of housing discrimination after Hurricane Andrew devastated much of the Southeast.
In 1993, he wasn't buying the notion that federal laws against racial discrimination had eliminated the historic problem.
"Many lenders say to applicants, 'We are practicing an objective science,' when in fact it is a race-based art masquerading as science," he told The Washington Post after a public hearing.
What emerges is the portrait of a young man with a flair for legal creativity and memorably precise speech, and a knack for accruing influence as he quietly climbed the ranks.
"Cornell has a great deal of intellectual capital, but he gets it done," Koeppe says. "That's a combination you don't always see."
Living the dream
How healthy is the NAACP Brooks is inheriting? It depends on whom you ask.
When Jealous, the 17th and youngest NAACP president, departed at the end of last year, he'd expanded the organization's donor base from fewer than 17,000 to more than 132,000 in half a decade. He'd also overseen a near doubling in annual revenue, to more than $43 million in 2012.
Jealous reached out to younger people, led the NAACP to lobby successfully to repeal the death penalty in several states (including Maryland), opposed New York's "stop-and-frisk" laws and led huge voter registration drives in the past two presidential elections.
There are signs of trouble, though. According to an April 30 finance committee cash flow forecast for the NAACP and its Special Contribution Fund, cash receipts fell to $9.7 million in the first four months of this year, down from $13 million during the same period in 2013. "Cash flow and the management of accounts payable continues to be a challenge for the Association," the forecast noted.
The average of cash receipts for the four-month period was $12 million from 2010 to 2013, the report said.
The report also noted that in April, "the Association drew $469,943 from [its] line of credit to supplement cash flow."
It was unclear whether the organization has sources of revenue other than those noted in the forecast, which included foundation grants, membership fees and donations.
Interim president Lorraine C. Miller declined to discuss the committee's forecast or the NAACP's overall financial picture, calling them internal matters.
On May 2, the national headquarters said it was cutting staff by 7 percent. Miller said that such cutbacks are normal during a time of transition.
Charity Navigator, which tracks and evaluates nonprofits, said that as of 2011, the most recent data analyzed, the NAACP was spending significantly more on administrative costs than most other charities — 26.5 percent, as opposed to 14 percent or less for the majority.
Those who have worked with Brooks say that if anyone's track record mirrors what the NAACP needs, it's his.
Koeppe recalls that when he hired Brooks to run the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice in 2008, the think tank, like many nonprofits, had suffered a drop in donations.
Brooks, he says, approached the problem like a CEO, not a starry-eyed idealist. "He took a hard analytical look at what programs were working. He assessed the quality of the people on the property. He was able to change the focus for a period of time and establish a financial base."
Records submitted to the IRS show that the institute has been in a growth pattern. For example, from 2010 to 2012, revenues jumped from $1.2 million to $1.7 million, and net assets rose from $6.8 million to $7.3 million.
"He turned the place around," Koeppe says.
As an advocate, Brooks focused on issues designed to empower those on society's "lower rung," as he phrased it in one interview: fair housing, workforce development, public education and, an issue that seems close to his heart, the re-entry into society of formerly incarcerated men and women.
Three years ago, he came to the institute's board with legislation he had written. It was designed to prevent employers from asking early in the hiring process whether applicants had been arrested or convicted of a crime.
It was well-crafted, Koeppe said, but didn't incorporate the views of business leaders. Brooks spent a year and a half consulting with them and tweaking his proposal, and got them on board.
"Cornell has a tremendous amount of commitment, passion and eloquence. He can be very persuasive," says Douglas Eakeley, the institute's board chairman.
Bespectacled, soft-spoken and looking far younger than 53, Brooks can be seen explaining his thinking in a video on the website for Ban the Box NJ. It mirrors a theme he has often spoken about — that discrimination built into our sociopolitical structure bars promising individuals from taking part in the American dream, and contributing to it.
"People with nonviolent, often long-ago, criminal records are prevented from working, prevented from paying taxes, prevented from contributing to the well-being of their families. … People should be measured by their opportunity to contribute to society, not merely their offenses against society," he says in the video.
The resulting bill, the Opportunity to Compete Act, resembles the "Ban the Box" measure passed in Baltimore in April. It goes before the New Jersey legislature next month, and backers say it's likely to join several other Brooks-written bills that have become state law.
Small-bore stuff from a little-known advocate? Perhaps. But no less a civil rights giant than U.S. Rep. James Clyburn thinks Brooks is a "great choice" to head the NAACP. "He is extremely well-educated and grounded," Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, wrote in an email, noting that he went to school with Brooks' parents.
All along, Brooks has had a parallel life in the church. Before moving to New Jersey, he was assistant pastor at Turner Memorial African Episcopal Methodist Church in Hyattsville, where members say he gave occasional sermons and did other ministerial work.
Longtime congregant Edward Flanagan doesn't remember Brooks addressing social justice from the pulpit — "it was more along moral lines and the tenets of religion." But he says Brooks "just has that imposing voice, The One That Must Be Listened To."
"We're ecstatic that he got the [NAACP] job. He's a wonderful man for it," Flanagan said, adding that Brooks and his wife, Janice, still attend services when they're in the area.
Miller sees that unassuming persona as an asset.
"He's not egotistical, but when you talk to him, it's clear he's comfortable in his own skin," she says. "You can underestimate him, and that's to our advantage."
One civil rights historian even sees a parallel to Brooks' hero.
In 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. was chosen to lead the pivotal Montgomery bus boycott precisely because he was unknown and untainted, says Thomas Bynum, director of African-American studies at Middle Tennessee State University.
"Montgomery changed his national profile," Bynum says.
Brooks, who keeps homes in Annandale, N.J., and Woodbridge, Va., is now reaching out to NAACP members and stakeholders to work up a list of ideas and plans, Miller says. But until July, when he addresses members and assumes his new job at the convention in Las Vegas, observers can only guess what he's going to do.
Koeppe says when he spoke to his protege about the job offer, he didn't presume to offer advice. Brooks, he says, doesn't need his help.
But Koeppe did try to put the opportunity in perspective: "What I said is that in a baseball game, you're only going to get a few fastballs down the middle of the plate. Only you can decide if you're going to swing. It's exciting he swung."
Cornell William Brooks
Work: President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice
Experience: Senior counsel to the Federal Communications Commission, executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington, trial attorney for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law