Public Policy, Prophetic Vision

November 9, 2020
Cornell William Brooks
Cornell William Brooks is Visiting Professor of the Practice of Prophetic Religion and Public Leadership at HDS.

Brooks teaches students to bring sacred and secular together in service of social justice

When Cornell William Brooks saw the video of George Floyd, the African American man killed last May by a Minneapolis police officer, it immediately brought to mind another terrifying image: the photo of the disfigured corpse of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American lynched in Mississippi in 1955.

Till’s mother had an open casket at her son’s funeral and allowed photographers in to show the world the violent reality of white supremacy in the American south. The two images are 65 years apart but both were shockingly violent, created moral intimacy with the viewer, and inspired change. 

“That picture of Emmett Till on the eve of the Montgomery Bus Boycott animated and inspired a civil rights revolution—the second Reconstruction in American history,” Brooks says. “This video [of George Floyd’s killing], not unlike that photograph, appears to be animating and inspiring a civil rights movement. Out of this tragedy, I believe, can come some hope.”

Hope is something that Visiting Professor Cornell William Brooks tries to pass on to the students in the classes he teaches at Harvard Divinity School. A former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a civil rights attorney, and a fourth-generation minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Brooks teaches future activists not only to lead great organizations, but also to build and sustain great movements for social justice.

Secular Scholarship, Sacred Texts

In his course, “Morals, Money and Movements,” Brooks walks students through case studies focusing on voting rights, immigration reform, gun control, LGBTQ rights, and systemic racism, to teach students how to make the case for change—and how to build a movement that can achieve it.

“We look at the role that violence played, for instance, both in dispiriting and inspiring people to push for the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” he says. “We examine not only the middle-aged ‘mother of the civil rights movement’ Rosa Parks and the rebellious teenager Claudette Colvin refusing to give up their bus seats on the eve of the Montgomery Boycott, but also the role of a younger 31-year-old Rosa Parks investigating the gang rape of 24-year-old Recy Taylor by white racists and the Black woman who created the organizational foundation for the 1955 boycott against racial segregation by protesting against sexual violence—15 years before, in 1940.”

One of the great challenges of sustaining the push for social justice is how to maintain momentum in the face of setbacks. Brooks says that the value of the case studies is not just to provide students with examples of successful strategies, but also to teach them to interpret history in a way that inspires moral agency. He teaches students about creating a “hermeneutic of history that inspires willingness to resist an injustice,” one of the critical advocacy principles covered in the course.

“You can look at your history as a series of defeats, or you can look at it the way that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Theodore Parker, HDS ’36, did: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’” 

Here, Brooks underscores the importance of using sacred texts in partnership with secular scholarship as tools for organizing and for accurately portraying the moral and ethical dimensions of struggle. He tells of his own experience passing “Ban the Box” laws in New Jersey that prohibit employers from asking about job applicants’ criminal record until late in the hiring process.

Brooks’s organization, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ), drew on the academic work of Alfred Blumstein, one of the nation’s leading criminologists, which showed that, after a time, those with a criminal record who did not reoffend were no more likely to break the law than anyone else in the labor market. Then the NJISJ shared Blumstein’s work with a range of religious communities and asked them to connect it to their notions of redemption. The result was one of the most expansive Ban the Box laws in the country.

“We use that case study to show that you can take scholarship, join it with sacred texts, and use it to articulate, flesh out, and illuminate values that move the public,” Brooks says. “We also use it to demonstrate that in most communities, the trusted intermediaries are not Democratic and Republican policy makers. They are the clergy and others who are recognized as moral voices.”

Folded hands in prayer shape

An Incredibly Powerful Training

Brooks’s course is typically filled with students both from HDS and Harvard Kennedy School, where he is also a member of the faculty, Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School, and elsewhere around the University. All want practical knowledge that can help them lead change, so Brooks challenges them to articulate a specific goal and then come up with the campaign, tools, and argument and legal and financial structures that they will use to achieve it. 

“It’s immoral not to focus on results,” he says. “My class is about being tough, strong, and clear in terms of policy and strategy, but also compassionate, persuasive, and inspiring. It joins hard public policy skills with a prophetic vision.”

A spiritual and theological grounding is critical for social justice work, Brooks says, because the road is long and the risks are real. 

“There are casualties in this work,” he says. “You do a 1,000-mile march and you expose yourself to tear gas or rubber bullets. People lose their jobs. People get death threats. That’s why you must inspire people, often by your eloquent example.”

Brooks says that ministry education helped him develop the moral imagination that has expanded his notions of justice and how it might be possible to change the law. The ability to listen deeply, to speak, and to preach were also invaluable skills that Brooks acquired in divinity school—and ones that continue to serve him well.

“When I sit down with a distrustful client,” he says, “because I took pastoral counseling and understand the concept of a ministry of presence, I can listen to their story without trying to put it into legal categories right away. It’s been an incredibly powerful training for me.”

While Brooks believes the notion that only religious leaders can be moral voices is antiquated, he says that the need for those voices is not. In fact, it’s more important than ever. That’s why an institution like HDS—nonsectarian, multireligious, with students on a wide range of career paths—is uniquely positioned to meet the need for ethical leaders in all fields.

“You have a generation of activists who long to hear moral voices in the places they are,” he says. “HDS graduates can bring the tools of ministry into places that most ministers can’t or wouldn’t go. And to the extent that they can bring a clear theological and ethical voice where people don’t expect it to be, they literally build congregations and temples just as powerful and important as those with a physical edifice.”

by Paul Massari