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Remarks by Ron Chernow Honoring Cornell Brooks

Ron Chernow delivered the following remarks at Humanity in Action's Twentieth Anniversary Celebration Benefit on December 8, 2016, at Christie's in New York City. Chernow's remarks honor Cornell Brooks, the President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Chernow is a member of Humanity in Action's Board of Directors and the host of the organization's Twentieth Anniversary Celebration Benefit.


We are honored this evening to recognize the achievements of Cornell Brooks, President and CEO of the NAACP since 2014. It is, as you know, the oldest and most prestigious of America’s civil rights organizations, now celebrating its 107th year of fighting for racial justice. I feel as if Humanity in Action, nineteen years old going on twenty, is a sort of bright, brash adolescent in the presence of a revered elder. Cornell likes to remind people that the NAACP was founded, not just by African-Americans, but also by white progressives and Jewish activists, and he has helped the organization to reclaim those roots.

This October, Cornell spoke at Humanity in Action’s New York Conference and what an impassioned, stem-winder of a speech he gave, full of eloquence and fire and a moral fervor that had distinct echoes of Dr. King. He is a marvelous blend of the preacher and teacher, the Old Testament and the New. Although he spoke right before the election, his evocation of an anxious America, roiled by racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism, all fanned by a frightening alt-right movement, has taken on a terrible new urgency in the wake of this election.

At the moment, I am winding up a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. I write at length about what happened during Reconstruction after the 15th Amendment gave Blacks the right to vote. Nothing terrified the white South more than Black people exercising the franchise. The Ku Klux Klan murdered thousands of Blacks who dared to go to the polls. During the Jim Crow era, hooded night riders gave way to more genteel methods to block the Black vote: poll taxes and literacy tests. We applaud Cornell Brooks and the NAACP for waging a battle against what he calls “Jim Crow 2.0.” After the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, Cornell and his organization filed major lawsuits in Texas, Alabama and North Carolina against voter suppression. These are not minor skirmishes in a larger battle. In Texas, 600,000 votes were in peril, in Alabama 500,000 votes—more than enough to swing a future presidential election.

What I love about Cornell is that he has broadened the fight against discrimination to include all Americans. He has pointed out that voter suppression discriminates against young people as well as Blacks. And for those young people who thought the civil rights movement was just a faded memory, something dusted off in their school textbooks, he has challenged them to become foot soldiers in a new multi-generational, multi-racial, movement. 

A similar spirit has informed his crusade against what he terms the ‘ugly evil’ of police misconduct. Cornell has not only talked the talk, but walked the walk. He sat handcuffed in a Roanoke jail after leading a protest against police brutality. He has deplored the 2.2 million Black Americans behind bars, the stop and frisk policies that have alienated people of color, and the racial profiling that goes with the territory. Cornell has cast this not as a polarizing Black versus white issue, but as a human issue that affects us all. 

We desperately need new leadership in this country. The election exposed a dangerous shortage of young leadership in both major parties. And that’s why I want to stress Cornell’s emphasis on leadership—what he calls the ‘eloquence of example.’ Last summer he led a march from Selma to the nation’s capital that lasted forty-three days in 103-degree heat. He has taken the organization out of the office and put it back into the streets. That march reminded us that, properly led, we too can be capable of the great moral fervor that inspired America in the heyday of the abolitionist movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movement, the gay rights movement, and of course, the civil rights movement.

Cornell, we are so delighted to have you’re here this evening. 

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