Cornell William Brooks, an attorney and minister from Northern Virginia, will lead the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization at a time when the NAACP is experiencing a resurgence in influence and recruitment but struggling with budget issues.
Brooks, whose appointment was announced Saturday, becomes the 18th person to oversee the Baltimore-based group, which includes more than 2,000 local units nationwide. As CEO, the 53-year-old Brooks follows Benjamin Jealous, whom many credit for helping to modernize the NAACP and return it to prominence.
Julian Bond, who serves as chairman emeritus of the NAACP, said Brooks seemed "like the perfect choice."
"He had done civil rights work all of his professional life; he's not a stranger to what we do," Bond said. "He just seemed the kind of soft-spoken and well-intentioned person I wanted to have in this job."
Bond said he hoped Brooks would continue the progress Jealous made attracting young people and using social media to reach a wider audience. "He doesn't have to imitate Ben Jealous, but he has to operate in the same way, moving forward, adopting new ideas," Bond said.
Brooks, who owns a home in Woodbridge, Va., is president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. A fourth-generation ordained minister, he has worked to advocate and train ex-convicts to rebuild their lives while successfully lobbying for legislation to reduce the effects of foreclosure on homeowners, NAACP officials said.
Brooks, who has served as senior counsel for the Federal Communications Commission and executive director of the Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington, said in a statement, "I am deeply humbled and honored to be entrusted with the opportunity to lead this historic organization. In our fight to ensure voting rights, economic equality, health equity, and an end to racial discrimination for all people, there is much work to do."
His selection comes about two weeks after the group said it was laying off 7 percent of its national staff. That announcement signaled renewed fiscal trouble for the 105-year-old organization, which has had a leading role in the nationwide push for racial equality — fighting against Jim Crow laws, school segregation and other discrimination.
The NAACP released few details about the layoffs, and would not disclose how they would affect staffing at the organization's headquarters in Northwest Baltimore. A spokesman said only that the move would "yield a leaner, more nimble organization for the 21st century."
The organization has endured internal problems before. In 2007, then-president and former Verizon executive Bruce S. Gordon resigned after 19 months in office. Black leaders at the time said Gordon's vision for an NAACP more focused on social-service programs and education clashed with those of board members who believed the group's focus shouldn't waver from fighting discrimination. Just before Jealous took the reins in 2008, NAACP leadership cut the staff by about 40 percent in order to retire the organization's debt.
Jealous helped bring the organization back from financial stagnation, expanding its donor base from 16,477 when he took office in 2007 to more than 132,000 five years later and nearly doubling its revenues to $46 million in 2012.
Jealous, the organization's youngest president, also helped blunt criticism that its leadership had grown old and out of touch.
He was praised for putting the NAACP at the forefront of topical stories, including the Trayvon Martin case, and he broadened the organization's advocacy mission into health care and early childhood education. Under his tenure the NAACP successfully lobbied to repeal the death penalty in several states, including Maryland, and the group led massive voter registration efforts in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.
Brooks, whose selection was made Friday by the NAACP board of directors, will be formally introduced to the NAACP membership at its annual convention in July. He succeeds interim president Lorraine C. Miller, who ran the group while a nationwide search for a CEO was conducted. Civil rights leaders were impressed by Brooks' credentials but some said his selection came as a surprise.
Civil rights leaders were impressed by Brooks' credentials, but some said his selection came as a surprise.
Former Maryland Congressman Kweisi Mfume, who led the NAACP for nine years, said he did not know much about Brooks but "wished him well" and said he had confidence in the selection process.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said Brooks continues the NAACP's recent trend of selecting presidents who are not well-known nationally. But Jealous' leadership served the organization well, he said, and he expects the same from Brooks.
Brooks is "highly regarded. He certainly was a dark-horse candidate but has a range of experience being a civil rights lawyer, running a nonprofit and being a minister and a lawyer," Morial said. "They picked someone that people were not expecting, and they picked someone who was not well known in civil rights circles and political circles."
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also supported the choice. In a statement, she said, "This is a strong choice and a signal that the NAACP remains committed to working from the grassroots to fight for equality. He brings a wealth of experience to the position, which will be an asset as we continue the fight for more equitable voting laws, economic policy and civil rights for all Americans, especially communities of color."
Jealous, who resigned last year to spend time with his family, was not widely known when he was selected in 2008. Just 35 at the time, he came with a resume that included being a Rhodes scholar, Oxford graduate and college civil rights activist who helped found Amnesty International's Human Rights Program.
Civil rights leaders said Brooks should continue advocating on issues that reverberate among young people nationally, such as the recent mass kidnapping of Nigerian school girls and the racially tinged remarks made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling that led the NBA to ban him from the league.
The NAACP came under criticism last month when news surfaced that the Los Angeles chapter was scheduled to give Sterling an achievement award just as tapes of his controversial remarks surfaced. The chapter quickly canceled the award and its president resigned, but the incident led to calls for the national organization to speed up its search for a permanent leader.
Baltimore Sun reporter Carrie Wells contributed to this article.
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