“This was a life-changing experience.”
“We don’t give up, and we don’t give in!”
Great Barrington — The president of the NAACP, Cornell Williams Brooks, an ordained reverend, gave a rousing speech on the Bard College at Simon’s Rock campus on Wednesday (April 26), a speech that emphasized the lasting importance of W.E.B. Du Bois in the American pantheon of great thinkers, here in the birthplace of the historian and civil rights activist.
Although the town of Great Barrington has a mixed record of embracing one of the most important civil rights icons of the 20th century, Brooks’ sermon-like presentation celebrating Du Bois’ relevance in today’s struggles for racial, social, and economic equality brought a packed audience in the Daniel Arts Center to its feet in appreciation.
“Wow,” said a breathless Tariq Pinston, 30, a social worker in Pittsfield, following the lecture. “The way he conveyed his message, so powerful, so clean, so eloquent. This was a life-changing experience. Wow.”
Brooks was a presenter for Bard College at Simon’s Rock’s annual W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Lecture, a series that was instituted 21 years ago after the college was approached by an irate fan of Du Bois who was incredulous that the town of Great Barrington had done little-to-nothing at the time to celebrate its most famous native son, according to Simon’s Rock Provost Ian Bickford.
“This is an anguishing hour of our democracy,” Brooks began his presentation. “There have been more than one thousand hate crimes since the election, many of them in our K-12 schools.” At times like these, Brooks said, we must look for role models who can represent us, and help guide us through these difficult times. That role model is Du Bois, he said, “a titan of a figure, not some irrelevant figure from the pages of history…. He was not just a scholar, but a black man who loved his people, who loved all people, and who advocated for their social justice. He speaks to us now. Inspires us now. And compels us now … to stand up for what is right,” adding: “We don’t give up, and we don’t give in!”
“In the South Bronx, Baltimore, Anacostia, D.C., there are today young W.E.B. Du Bois amongst us,” he continued. “They are in our public school right now, right here. And we must nurture them” much as “young Willy Du Bois” was nurtured by his community in Great Barrington.
Brooks’ speech addressed many of the NAACP’s classic advocacy issues, including public school inequality, the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and the need to fight against attempts to roll back voting rights. He also passionately advocated for an end to discrimination in the workplace against those who have served time in prison. “If a person has paid their debt to society, then they deserve the opportunity to work,” Brooks said. “Every man deserves a second chance, particularly if he didn’t have much of a first chance to begin with.”
John Dunne, 87, of Chatham, N.Y., an Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights during the first George Bush administration, was among those who stood up to praise Brooks’ speech, which concluded shortly after Brooks quoted the lyrics of James Weldon Johnson (“Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”), the composer and civil rights activist who also lived in the Great Barrington, on Alford Road across from the Simon’s Rock campus.
“I’ve spent my life fighting for what you’re talking about,” Dunn said, adding that in addition to voter suppression, it’s also important to fight voter apathy. “We need to raise those numbers,” he said of those who vote. “But the movement is alive and well.”
As the town of Great Barrington begins the uneasy process of how to celebrate Du Bois’ 150th birthday next February, Selectman Ed Abrahams said he viewed Brooks’ speech at Simon’s Rock as a kick-off to that year. “We are the birthplace of Du Bois and it’s time we made a long overdue big deal about that.”
Great Barrington resident Leigh Davis, whose father led the Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation in Washington, D.C., and was instrumental in helping establish Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday, suggested that we begin with the schools. “Local children don’t even know about Du Bois,” she said. “His writings and their impact are not being taught. We haven’t even named a school after him. We need to start with education.”
Brooks was surprised to hear that Great Barrington has done little to celebrate Du Bois. “When I got the invitation from the college and the address said Great Barrington, I knew I had to come,” he said. “It’s the birthplace of Du Bois!
“I can’t imagine any town with so important, so titanic of a figure in American history not claiming and exulting him as its own. He’s one of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th century. That’s like Princeton denying that Einstein lived there.”
As for celebrating Du Bois’ 150th birthday, Brooks had this to say: “I’m not familiar with the social calendar of Great Barrington, but what else is happening that day?”