The NAACP dismissed Cornell William Brooks as its president as the more than century-old civil rights organization seeks what its board calls a “systemwide refresh.”
And, while experts and others said the organization remains relevant, a shakeup and clear direction should be the goal going forward.
“People are saying, ‘I know what you’re against, but what are you for?’ Most people don’t know what the NAACP does anymore,” said E. Ethelbert Miller, a literary activist and writer. “Like all institutions right now everything is under examination. I think it’s important that the NAACP look at what made it strong in the past.”
The board needs to get younger and leadership should understand that a more visible media and social media presence must be included, he said.
“The NAACP intends to aggressively and nimbly respond to the current climate of political unrest, as well as the assaults upon human and civil rights that threaten our very democracy, as only it can,” said NAACP Chairman Leon Russell.
“To do so demands that the board of the NAACP ensure that organization has the right plan and the right leadership to address these 21st-century challenges,” he said, noting that the civil rights organization has been preparing to rebuild itself.
Russell also cited the need to respond to “additional barriers” that black Americans are facing and “confront the realities of today’s volatile political, media and social climates.”
He said the 109-year-old NAACP must face head on issues such as police brutality and voter rights.
“That’s why we are launching a system wide and strategic revisioning process that will ensure that the NAACP can address these 21st century challenges,” Russell said.
The NAACP’s preeminence has been challenged by the Black Lives Matter movement that sprang up to protest police shootings of African-Americans in recent years and by mass protests against President Donald Trump. The decision not to renew Brooks’ contract was made by the NAACP national board, Reuters reported.
“I’m disappointed and mystified,” Brooks said in a telephone interview, pointing out that he was at least the 10th head of the NAACP in the past 15 years, including interim leaders. “There’s been a revolving door of CEOs at the NAACP and this is a bad moment for it to be spinning.”
Brooks, a lawyer and minister, said membership and donations had increased during his tenure and NAACP lawyers had won nine court cases involving voter suppression in 10 months.
NNPA President and CEO Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. took to social media to voice his support for both Brooks and the future of the NAACP.
“Thank you Dr. Cornell W. Brooks for your leadership, sacrifice and everlasting NAACP legacy,” said Chavis, who in 1993 became the youngest CEO in NAACP history. “God Bless all of the NAACP. Long live the tradition, legacy and high achievement of all the continuous line of NAACP national leaders over the past century.”
Victoria Wolcott, a professor and chair of the history department at the University of Buffalo, said the NAACP has played a vital role in the freedom struggle since its founding. But the organization also counts among a range of civil rights organizations and works best when in alliance with other groups.
“For this reason, I don’t believe the Black Lives Matter Movement supplants its work,” Wolcott said. “Rather, the Black Lives Matter Movement excels in highly visible direct action demonstrations and focused attention on the issue of police brutality. The NAACP, in contrast, excels in the legal realm and in lobbying. It also works on a variety of issues from mass incarceration to education and health.”
Wolcott noted also that local chapters often have deep ties to community leaders in business education, which gives the organization both reach and power.
“At the height of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, the NAACP provided vital support to the student movement, who was carrying out major direct action campaigns in the Deep South,” she said. “I see them potentially playing a similar role today in relationship to the BLM movement.”
The search for a new NAACP president will start immediately, Russell said.
In the meantime, Russell and vice chair Derrick Johnson will handle day-to-day operations, they said, and carry out a listening tour.
“We want to be informed by those who are the people we serve,” Russell said. “And to do so we have to see them, we have to meet them, and we have to listen to them.”