Speaking in Statesboro, Cornell William Brooks, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, proclaimed youth-inspired relevance for the 106-year-old civil rights organization and urged members to greater activism on issues from voting rights and a living wage to ending racial profiling.
Brooks gave the keynote speech Friday at the 73rd annual Georgia NAACP State Convention, which had convened Thursday. The convention continues today, when Statesboro’s own Dr. Francys Johnson will be nominated for re-election to a second two-year term as NAACP state president.
From Aug. 1 through Sept. 16, Brooks led people organized by the NAACP and partner organizations on a 1,000-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to Washington, D.C. He made this march, called America’s Journey for Justice, a central metaphor of his remarks.
“Only a few months ago, this organization, to which you claim membership, was charged with the responsibility of taking a journey through some very troubling challenges on the American social justice landscape,” Brooks said. “Our young people remind us that though this is our country, we feel as if we are in the midst of a generational assault, a pandemic of police misconduct.”
About 150 people, many of them member delegates from around the state, heard him speak during the membership luncheon at Georgia Southern University’s Nessmith-Lane Conference Center.
Several times during his speech, Brooks alluded to young activists and the Black Lives Matter movement, which began independently of the NAACP. He placed the slogan in the context that “all lives matter,” and asserted that the NAACP remains “the original black lives matter movement.”
Social justice issues
“Our young people remind us, from Ferguson to North Charleston to Atlanta, to Statesboro, that an African-American man is 21 times more likely to lose his life at the hands of the police than his white counterparts,” Brooks said.
“Our young people remind us that there are 32 million Americans in this country who report being racially profiled,” he continued. “Our young people remind us that not only does profiling affect African-Americans and Latinos, but also Muslims and also those who are gay and lesbian.”
He urged NAACP members to speak with one voice for passage of the End Racial Profiling Act.
On economic issues, he noted that a survey placed Atlanta in the top tier of U.S. cities in income inequality, with those in the top bracket earning 20 times those at the bottom. The NAACP has backed legislation to raise the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 to $10.10 an hour and has applauded minimum wage provisions of $15 an hour, such as one passed by the city of Seattle.
On education, Brooks said that Georgia’s fourth-grade test scores show that schools in the wealthiest suburban districts have no problem reaching the required levels while bright children “who live in struggling cities and small towns and rural communities … are relegated to third-class schools” and struggle to pass the tests.
On incarceration, he noted that Georgia has more people behind bars than live in the city of Macon or the city of Albany, that nationally 2.3 million Americans are in jails and prisons and 65 million have criminal records.
“We’re reminded that we live in the midst of a moment of profound civil rights challenges,” Brooks said, “and we have to ask ourselves, do we stand still or do we move.”
The banner of this summer’s march read, “Our lives, our votes, our jobs and our schools matter.”
“We say very unapologetically that all lives matter whether your skin is black or your uniform is blue,” Brooks said. “And so we said our lives matter, but then we also say that our votes matter.”
On voting rights, Brooks noted, the NAACP has been challenging voter ID laws across the country as attempts to discourage minority voters. He also noted that Johnson, as Georgia NAACP president, “went to Washington, D.C., to testify in Congress in support of a strong Voting Rights Act.”
Johnson spoke to a U.S. Senate committee that looked at reinforcing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after a 2013 Supreme Court decision retired the requirement for Justice Department preclearance of voting procedure changes. The requirement did not apply to all states, but in the South and a few other states with histories of voter discrimination.
Without the preclearance requirement, challenges to changes that affect minority representation require legal action. With support from the NAACP national organization, Johnson has pursued lawsuits against changes in some Georgia counties.
Like Johnson, Brooks is both a civil rights attorney and a minister. The executive board of the NAACP chose him to head the association in May 2014.
The NAACP, Brooks said, is marching not only for the future of the nation, but for its own future, in defiance of critics who believe it “should be consigned to a rest home for those who have become senile and geriatric with regards to their civil rights advocacy.”
The NAACP now has about 425,000 members nationwide, according to the history page on its website. Brooks described his vision for an NAACP that puts young activists and senior members to work side-by-side.
“It’s an NAACP in which we grow, 1 million members, multiethnic, multiracial, multigenerational …,” he said. “We more than double in size.”
Dawn Baker, news anchor for Savannah’s WTOC-TV, was master of ceremonies for the luncheon. Dr. Jean Bartels, interim president of Georgia Southern University, welcomed the NAACP leaders to campus.
Bartels observed that about 30 percent of Georgia Southern’s more than 20,500 students are from minority populations and that the number is increasing. She also noted that she is the university’s first female president.
“But what I’m most proud about and what think you will find perhaps most good to hear is we’re one of the top 50 institutions of higher learning in the country to graduate the largest numbers of African-American students,” Bartels said, interrupted by applause. “It’s one thing to come to an institution; it’s another thing to graduate.”
James “Major” Woodall, 21, Georgia Southern University NAACP Collegiate Chapter past president and now the nominee for NAACP Georgia Youth and College Division president, assessed Brooks’ remarks.
“He presented a very genuine appeal to the membership here in the NAACP for the state of Georgia that we have to get dedicated to doing the work, at the bottom, at the bases, at every essential level,” said Woodall, a senior majoring in political science.
Six of the NAACP Bulloch County Youth Council’s 50 members attended. The council’s president, Nnedi Okafor, 16, a Statesboro High School student, had been to several NAACP state events in other cities. Even before Brooks spoke, Okafor noted that employment and raising the minimum wage, education and the incarceration rate were major issues being discussed at the convention.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.