By Andy Mead
Shortly after Cornell Brooks walked into the Cousins House for lunch, David Mathews handed him a package of papers that Brooks had written for the Kettering Foundation.
The papers were dated in the 1980s and showed the unmistakable signs of having been written on a typewriter.
“Oh my, “ Brooks said, “this was before spell-check.”
Brooks, 54, is completing his first year as president of the 350,000-member National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The first time he arrived at Kettering, in 1983, he was a newly minted graduate of Jackson State University in Mississippi.
He had come to Kettering to take part in a new research assistant program. He admitted that he hadn’t been sure just where Dayton, Ohio, was, but recalled taking his second- or third-ever plane to arrive in the unfamiliar Midwestern landscape.
Now, as head of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, he was back in the area to deliver the commencement address at Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce.
Mathews took advantage of Brooks’ proximity and invited him to the foundation for lunch at the end of a busy May research exchange week. Lunch was more talking than eating and included discussions about old-fashioned organizing and modern-day social media methods to reach young people. Then Brooks delivered remarks to a receptive crowd in the Cousins House’s largest dining area.
In introducing his speaker, Mathews said that Brooks had done such a good job in that first year as a research assistant that he was asked back for a second year, then later for a third stint.
Brooks is one of a number of Kettering research assistants and international fellows over the last 35 years who have gone on to do great things, Mathews said. They include Peter Levine, a Kettering board member who is one of the nation’s leading scholars in civic engagement; Wang Jisi, the leading interpreter of the United States to the Chinese and a former dean of Peking University’s School of International Affairs; Roberto Saba, dean of the University of Palermo Law School in Buenos Aires; and Maria Fernanda Cabal, who was elected last year to the Colombia legislature. “If we were a university, we would have a stellar class,” Mathews said.
Brooks stood out, he said, because at a young age, he was very clear about the path he wanted to take to prepare himself for a life of service: First a degree from Boston University’s School of Theology, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. earned his divinity degree, then a law degree from Yale University.
Mathews also highlighted a three-paragraph memo Brooks had written in the 1980s. At the time, the foundation’s motto was “To make public life work as it should.” Brooks’ memo advised that “if the foundation is interested in trying to help the public to work better, to be healthy, it is important to understand how the public works.”
Substitute the word democracy for public, Mathews said, and you have what has evolved into the central concept that connects the foundation’s efforts today.
He suggested that the memo showed that the young Brooks was prescient. But when Brooks started speaking, he drew a laugh and said, “It would be more precise and accurate to say I probably was presumptuous, to tell you the truth.”
Brooks spoke fondly of his early days at Kettering and the impact they have had on his life. “One of the things that struck me about that summer was both the seriousness and idealism and the high-mindedness of the young people who came here in terms of thinking about the problems of democracy.”
After Yale, Brooks was a trial attorney for the Department of Justice, winning a large settlement for housing discrimination victims and bringing the first federal discrimination suit against a nursing home. He later was the executive director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, where he pushed for important laws that helped former prisoners reenter society. He also ran for a congressional seat from Maryland’s 10th District, talking about public education, affordable health care, and fiscal responsibility.
All those efforts, he said, centered on the Kettering ideal of making democracy work.
Brooks was a fourth-generation ordained minister and successful civil rights attorney, but far from a nationally known figure when he was tapped to lead the NAACP. News articles about his election routinely described him as soft-spoken and listed prominent civil rights figures who had never met him.
But he stepped into the job at a time when race relations and civil rights have been pushed to the front of the national discourse. In particular, Brooks has been dealing with the string of incidents in which unarmed black males were killed by white police officers. Those incidents, he said, “brought into bold relief” the questions he had first pondered at Kettering.
He was just weeks into the job when Eric Garner died of a chokehold in New York City. Then, in August, Brooks found himself immersed in the uproar that followed the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
“I again found myself in a town where I had never been, talking to young people about a global civil rights crisis that erupted in their backyard,” Brooks said. “What I decided was that this was not merely a criminal justice challenge, not merely a civil rights problem, but a democracy problem.”
He found young people struggling with how to engage older people, how to engage the governor, how to engage the state legislature, how to get new civil rights groups to work with “a legacy institution,” such as the NAACP.
“These are the kinds of questions that were wrestled with last summer and in the many months since then, and they are the same questions that were wrestled with many months ago when I was a young student here at the Kettering Foundation,” Brooks said.
“How do you make democracy work? At the end of the day, I have to believe it is about speaking to people’s highest constitutional and moral ideals. I believed it then. I believe it now.”
Andy Mead is a longtime Kentucky journalist, who now participates in Kettering research.