WASHINGTON — The national board of the N.A.A.C.P. is expected to vote Friday to dismiss the organization’s president, Cornell William Brooks, after only three years, pledging a “systemwide refresh” at the nation’s largest and most storied civil rights group in order to confront President Trump more vigorously.
Mr. Brooks, who said in an interview that he was “baffled” and saddened by the decision, is expected to leave the organization at the end of June when his contract expires. The group will begin searching for a new leader while Leon W. Russell, the chairman of the board, and Derrick Johnson, the vice chairman, head up day-to-day operations.
Both Mr. Russell and Mr. Johnson said the group needed to change to more effectively push back against Mr. Trump’s stances on issues like voting rights laws, public education, environmental policy and the criminal justice system. The group, which has been eclipsed in many ways by the more youthful Black Lives Matter movement and the broader “resistance” to Mr. Trump, is launching a national listening tour of cities across the nation to get ideas about how it can remain relevant.
In the interview on Friday afternoon, Mr. Brooks said that he convened a meeting a few weeks ago to study how the organization could both engage the Trump administration on issues and oppose White House policies that went against the group’s beliefs. He also said that since January, membership has risen by 87 percent and donations are up 200 percent.
“I’m somewhat mystified and disappointed because I love the work,” Mr. Brooks said. “Relevance is about authenticity and impact, and we tried to do that. So it’s been a tough ride.”
But a younger generation of black activists said change was needed.
“I don’t think the N.A.A.C.P. is ready for this moment because they have been too risk-averse to engage,” said Symone D. Sanders, the former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, who is black. “If folks aren’t ready to shut it down, to challenge this White House, to challenge Congress, to do more than just march, to do some real direct action, then they will not survive in this moment.”
Benjamin Jealous, who was president of the N.A.A.C.P. from 2008 to 2013, was far more confrontational than Mr. Brooks, and remains a presence in liberal circles.
When pressed on why Mr. Brooks could not help the group usher in a new phase of activism, both Mr. Russell and Mr. Johnson demurred, saying only that the board had decided the organization needed a new leader.
“We have to work together with other folks, young folks, old folks, in-between folks to ensure that we stop the kind of cynicism, the kind of relapse to a bad old situation that Trump represents,” Mr. Russell said.
Mr. Russell did say that the outcome of the presidential election, Mr. Trump’s governance, and fast-moving news cycles had led the century-old organization to do some soul searching.
“We are in a transitional moment,” Mr. Johnson said. “This is the opportune time to begin to look at all our functions as an association and see, are we the right fit for the current reality?”
To Mr. Brooks, the criticism seemed misplaced. He said he got pushback from some members of the organization’s board for being arrested in January after an hourslong sit-in at the Mobile, Ala., office of then-Senator Jeff Sessions, who is now the attorney general. Mr. Brooks and several other protesters demanded that Mr. Sessions withdraw his name from consideration as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
“I’m not ashamed of a mug shot that we earned standing against Senator Sessions and for voting rights,” Mr. Brooks said Friday. “For the N.A.A.C.P. to be the N.A.A.C.P. that history calls us to be, we need to stand at the sides of young people who are standing on the front lines of social justice wherever that happens to be, even if it means in jail.”
But some of those young people say they haven’t seen much of the organization. Johnetta Elzie, 28, an activist who became prominent after protesting in Ferguson, Mo., praised Mr. Brooks for being arrested at Mr. Sessions’s office.
But, she added, “I don’t ever think about them as a resource. I don’t ever look in their direction to see what’s going on. I think that’s a problem because their legacy means we should be looking for them for leadership at all times.”
Mr. Sessions’s order to federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences against crime suspects crystallized the decision to press for change at the civil rights group. The order reversed efforts by the Obama administration to ease penalties for some nonviolent drug offenses and was a 180-degree pivot even for the Republican Party, which had warmed to criminal justice reform.
Mr. Russell said he was also worried about Mr. Trump’s executive order to revive the coal industry and nullify President Barack Obama’s work to combat climate change, as well as efforts by Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, to push for more school choice programs while cutting resources from public schools. The president’s budget, to be released next week, is expected to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from school-based mental health programs, advanced coursework and other services, and to plow much of the savings into a $400 million program to fund vouchers for private and religious schools, and to expand public charter schools.
Mr. Russell said the group plans to train members on how to disseminate information quickly to counter the White House, how to fight legal battles locally and how to move beyond protesting. Local chapters will also be getting more resources from the national organization to help bolster activism in both urban and rural areas.
“We have to be relevant and available for our people wherever they are,” Mr. Russell said. “We need to speak to folks, find out what their needs are, and then work together to bring those needs to them on the local level.”
Mr. Brooks became president of the organization just before the nation embarked on an intense conversation about police killings, inspired by the deaths of African Americans like Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland. Since then, Mr. Brooks said he has made sure to both protest in places like Selma, Ala., and to push for concrete changes, by advocating a study of policing patterns in Ferguson, Mo., and filing lawsuits aimed at improving the water in Flint, Mich.
“The N.A.A.C.P. has been visible, vocal, multiracial and youth-supported,” he said. “There have been many leaders with many different styles at the N.A.A.C.P. My hope is that in the future, we will have fewer of them, staying longer.”
Source: New York Times
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