BY ALLYSON HUNTOON '19
By 7:40 p.m. on Friday, March 24, the pews of Amherst College’s Johnson Chapel were nearly full. A crystal chandelier hung above guests’ heads as they filed into the room, shuffling across the red carpet to their seats. Students, faculty, alumni and community members alike had gathered to hear from, Dr. Cornell William Brooks.
At 8:00 p.m., president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Brooks, delivered a speech about, “A Woke Democracy.” Brooks is a civil rights attorney, social justice advocate, fourth-generation ordained minister and coalition builder who has served as the 18th president of the association since 2014.
When Brooks took the stage, the audience laughed as he poked fun at Amherst president Biddy Martin’s Twitter habits and cracked a joke about Williams College, Amherst’s rival. He was warmly welcomed with applause and nods from the audience as he leaned into the podium and the deeper conversation about “A moment in our democracy in which many are trembling in fear.”
“We will stand up for our democracy ... we will stand up for the least of these,” Brooks started, highlighting the problem of rising rates of hate crimes since President Trump’s victory in the presidential election. Anti-Semitism and racism, particularly in schools, were among the issues referenced.
“There is a generation of students who won’t sleep through a revolution,” he explained, rousing young people in the room. He said that this generation was “committed to a woke democracy [with] much to be hopeful about [and] much to be confident in.” He drew from the example of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which was born out of a hashtag in reaction to the killing of a young black man, Trayvon Martin. Brooks spoke the names of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and other people of color who have been the focus of heated debates on racism and police brutality, transitioning into the topic of criminal justice reform.
Brooks waved his finger and the veins in his forehead protruded as he stressed, “every person with a criminal record is not a crook,” and told the stories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks as supporting evidence. On this topic, Brooks highlighted the work of the NAACP in recent years to fight discrimination against people with criminal records. Brooks described the “Ban The Box” campaign, which according to the NAACP “promotes employers to not ask about arrest history and to remove the question about criminal history from the initial job application forms and to ask the question about criminal history only in instances where it relates to the job in question.” This campaign, which has had success in some states, is based on the premise that “if a man has paid his debt to society, he deserves a second chance,” according to Brooks.
He emphasized the importance of young activists, urging audience members to be inspired and believe in them. Also considering the work of older leaders, such as Rep. John Lewis, Brooks ex- claimed, “we need a multigenerational fight for social justice in this country!” The audience erupted with applause at this suggestion.
Brooks continued to highlight NAACP action, focusing on equal voting rights and the fight against voter suppression laws in states like Texas and North Carolina. “The NAACP secured nine court victories against voter suppression in 10 months,” he said.
Brooks continued with a story from two summers ago. He spoke of the 2015 march from Selma, Alabama to Washington D.C., an 860-mile journey in support of voting equality and justice. He described a man named Middle Passage, who wanted to walk the entire distance of the march at sixty-eight years of age, clutching an American flag every step of the way. After walking forty days in hopes of inspiring young people and fighting for justice, Passage collapsed and died before he could finish. Brooks remembered the Navy veteran fondly, and recounted a student ask- ing, “If a man was willing to die for the right to vote, why can’t we vote and fight for the right to vote?”
“For any hand-wringing pessimists in the room,” Brooks addressed anyone who may still be doubting the importance of or ability to fight racial injustice, he began to recite the poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” James Weldon Johnson, concluding with the line, “Let us march on till victory is won.”
The crowd received Brooks’ sentiments with roaring, standing applause, followed by a question and answer session.
Brooks addressed questions concerning intersectionality by calling young people “a generation of scholar activists,” who “need to come together in real ways, not just in crisis ... we need each other fundamentally.” In addition, he explained that race is not to be simply judged by others but self-identified in order to find one’s role in activism. With regard to white-passing African-Americans, he said that no one can “challenge anyone’s racial street cred,” also mentioning that the majority of the NAACP’s founders were white.
Concerning effective activism, he emphasized the difficulty of working with people outside of your community. He explained, “if you look down on the way people talk, worship, dance, you can’t be an effective advocate ... you have to be in the community ... it’s not just tweeting or posting... it’s being present ... if you’re going to get involved, build relationships. It’s old fashioned, but it works.”
He addressed the importance of valuing black women, especially in the workplace. “We all have to be woke and we all have to demand respect,” he said.
As a preacher, he also explained how his faith is integral to his work as a motivating force. “I believe in the innate worth of people ... each of God’s children has worth.”
Brooks also discussed issues of income inequality and the vital importance of being willing to maintain dialogue with those you oppose in order to make longterm change. He recounted his discussions with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom he opposes in political opinion and testified against the nomination of, saying, “if someone is a worthy opponent, they should also be a worthy discusser.”
Several Mount Holyoke students attended the event. Lola Garcia ’20 said, “I think it was extremely powerful to hear him, a strong activist and thinker, call us, college students, to action because we’re definitely living during a time that is very painful and distressing for us ... It reframed a lot for me, both in terms of social activism and the type of outlook to have. What I found especially great was his callout on the use of platforms for activism, highlighting how crucial it is to mobilize in real life both at organized protests and daily interactions, not just online.”
Brooks concluded the session with a statement in regard to this issue of real-life mobilization. “If you claim to love people but don’t want to spend any time around them, that’s a problem.” At the NAACP, he said, “We challenge folks ... social media is social, but social can’t be confined to digital ... we have got to move out of that space.”