"Don't you dare underestimate us."
There were several messages that made their way into Cornell William Brooks’ speech at the Killeen Civic and Conference Center on Friday night, where he spoke at the Killeen chapter of the NAACP’s Freedom Fund Banquet. That statement acted like a punctuation mark on a speech that left few stones unturned.
Brooks, the CEO and president of the NAACP, was they keynote speaker at the event, attended by over 600 people, including members of the Killeen NAACP chapter and Texas House Reps. Scott Cosper and Hugh Shine, as well as Gary Bledsoe, the president of the Texas branch of the NAACP.
Brooks touched upon issues like criminal justice reform and ensuring citizens’ right to vote. He talked about police misconduct across the country, and he talked about what those in the audience could do to make situations better.
“We have to get out of the way of our young people and let them lead,” he said. “We have to be responsibly radical. We can’t outsource this Twitter-based civil rights movement to the next generation and say we’ve done enough.”
Brooks has Texas ties, as he was born in El Paso. He became the 18th president of the NAACP in May 2014, and talked about his five-hour conversation with President Barack Obama after a Dallas sniper shot and killed five police officers on July 7.
“In many ways, Texas is at the epicenter of American civil rights,” Brooks said in an interview before his speech. “We’re very excited about the work that’s been done here, especially at a time where so much of our country is divided...Texas is at a cross roads in civil rights.”
Brooks listed youth courts, drug courts and grand jury reform laws as some of the specific things that indicated Texas was making progress in equality.
Criminal justice reform is one thing the NAACP has focused a tremendous amount of effort on.
Bledsoe, in his speech, directly addressed local Justice of the Peace Claudia Brown’s efforts to lower bond amounts, and the backlash she received in doing so.
“Bail is not supposed to be used as a tool of oppression,” Bledsoe said in an interview. “We see sometimes that judges give bail to make a statement, but that’s not what bail is meant to do.”
Brooks also spoke about the issue.
“Poor people are being warehoused while innocent, people are sitting in jail as time goes by because they can’t post bond,” Brooks said. “This does not happen to wealthy people. You don’t see investment bankers and well-to-do lawyers sitting in jail after they get arrested for a speeding ticket.”
Watching from the front row of tables was Rosa Hereford, a member of the Killeen NAACP for 50 years. She joined in 1967, when the chapter needed just 12 members to stay alive, and has had a front row seat to watch the group grow since then. Brooks told the audience that he was proud of what the local branch has done.
“This is one of the best branches in the nation,” he said. “We need the Killeen area to be part of the dialogue of what we can do in this country.”
The annual banquet raises money for scholarships. This year, there were six recipients honored; Mohannad Naffaa, Imari Neal, Marion Rose, Michael Way, Marisa Richardson and Loveless Gatewood.