WASHINGTON — The national board of the NAACP is expected to vote today 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 to confront President Donald Trump more vigorously.
Brooks is expected to leave the civil rights organization at the end of June when his contract expires. The group will begin searching for a new leader while Leon W. Russell, chairman of the group’s board, and Derrick Johnson, the vice chairman, head day-to-day operations.
Both Russell and Johnson said the group needed to change to more effectively push back against Trump’s stances on issues including 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 Trump, is launching a national listening tour of cities across the nation to get ideas about how it can remain relevant.
“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,” Russell said.
He added that the outcome of the presidential election, 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,” 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?”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ 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 Obama administration efforts to ease penalties for some nonviolent drug violations and was a 180-degree pivot even for the Republican Party, which had warmed to criminal justice reform.
Russell said he was also worried about Trump’s executive order to nullify President Barack Obama’s climate change efforts and revive the coal industry, 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, advanced coursework and other services, and plow much of the savings into a $400 million program to fund vouchers for private and religious schools, and to expand public charter schools.
While other organizations that have taken stands against Trump have seen huge surges in membership and contributions, NAACP leaders would like to be more central to the so-called resistance. The NAACP president who led the organization for the four years before Brooks, Benjamin Jealous, was far more confrontational, and remains a presence in liberal circles.
Russell said the group has seen an increase in membership since Trump’s election, but he 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 NAACP 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,” 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.”
An aide to Brooks said he was unavailable to comment.
When pressed on why Brooks could not help the group usher in the new phase, both Russell and Johnson demurred, saying only that the board had decided the organization needed a new leader.