An Interview with Civil Rights Champion Rev. Clyde H. Brooks

Tom Denio
Chicago, IL

An Interview with Rev. Clyde H. Brooks

“Rev. Clyde H. Brooks has been a faithful fire for justice and promoter of racial justice and human dignity for over half a century. Through his organization, the Illinois Commission on Diversity and Human Relations (of which he is Chairman and CEO), Rev. Brooks has sponsored an annual event in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for 52 years with many notable speakers including such leaders as Andrew Young, Rev. Jesse Jackson, former California legislator Willie Brown and the Attorney General of Illinois, Kwame Raoul.”
--The Rev. John Alan Boryk (retired United Methodist minister).

TiBA caught up with Rev. Brooks on December 16, 2021 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Arlington Heights, IL for an interview.

Rev Brooks, at the Nov. 13, 2021 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Remembrance & Commemoration Dinner and Concert, you gave a speech in which you startled many by stating that Rev. King’s dream is dead. Why did you say that ?

Brooks: Well, I’m getting up in age and my health is not what it used to be so I should say it while I can. I say it because of everything that’s happened and the retrenchment we see today. The “Dream” speech makes good folks feel better but we’ve been dreaming and hoping for too long. Today we see a nightmare. The evidence includes the growth of hate groups (3 times more today), the roll back of voting rights, the slaughter of young black men, the deep divisions among us. In many ways we still sit at the back of the bus as seen in health care, high rates of infant mortality, employment and voting. White people don’t see it because they don’t have to live it; they don’t see privilege.

We sit and watch people die just because of the color of their skin. Think of Eric Garner in NY, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery…

The need for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement today goes together with the point that Dr. King’s dream is dead. Would we need BLM if King’s dream had come true – that black children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character?

Yes, the dream is dead. I hope people get angry and seek the truth. The dream is not even alive for billionaires; they’re too dumb to understand it. Bill Gates is doing many fine things, but has the work changed evil?

How does racism today compare to racism when you worked with Dr. King?
It is worse now than when Dr. King was alive. Then discrimination was a lot more direct so our target was clearer. Today it is more subtle. Hate is more institutionalized today. The white people who say “there were no problems in the old days” have their eyes closed. That troubles me. Back then Black folks did not raise their voices, but they do now.

Why do you think there has not been more progress in dismantling racism?
I think all of this lays at the doorsteps of two institutions: churches and the education system. They’ve done more to promote misunderstanding than any others. Blacks do not control large institutions. Many people go to church every Sunday, but they are very selective in what they believe. Do they pursue justice and equality? Do they help the poor? I’ve heard from a number of ministers in the northwest suburbs that many of their members voted for Trump. And then you have the large church financial donors who do not want controversy so the churches place money before righteousness. Dr. King called us on this.

Of all the years we’ve organized the Dr. King dinner, only two churches have sponsored tables.

Regarding education, there is a lack of images of Black doctors, pilots, scientists, etc. As I wrote recently, “Schools teach that ‘all men are born equal’ but neglect to show white students the irony of such statements when failing to teach American history correctly, especially concerning subjects relating to slavery. This intentional omission had to be corrected by the Illinois General Assembly which enacted a law to mandate that the slave trade and socio-economic struggles experienced by black people in the United States be included in the public school curriculum.”
People do not know that they are thinking wrong.

What is the role of the political establishment in all of this?
In the U.S., its about change and many people know the U.S. is changing demographically. In less than 35 year years, 57% of the population will be people of color. Many whites do not want that change and it’s driving politics as seen in anti-immigrant fears and policies plus moves in many states to restrict voting by people of color. This idea that attorney generals in red states may be able to overturn the popular vote could lead to minority rule (apartheid). This is bigger than January 6. Talk of losing democracy and what that means is very frightening. Too many people have their heads in the sand as they are comfortable with the way things are.

In the U.S. Senate, it’s very disturbing that two Senators are standing in the way of protecting voting rights.

What do you want white people to do to dismantle racism?
Well now, you’re asking the victim what the oppressors should do. White people need to look inward individually and institutionally. People don’t like controversy but change requires controversy. People need to feel strongly enough to speak up, like Father Pfleger in Chicago, and address the institutions.

It’s easier for whites to work with whites. My complexion precedes my message. White folks need to organize in churches and politically and run anti-racist candidates for public office. People can speak out in newspapers, at school board meetings, and they can lobby banks and pull their money out.

The Bible says “To whom much is given, much is required.” Retired people can take more risks and speak out. We need change agents, not people who just want to go along with the system. Silence makes people accessories. Taking action is a far cry from going to a Dr. King remembrance dinner.

Go back, educate and organize white folks. If you can find twelve activists, decide which institution you will go after. Our time on earth is short. How will we use our few minutes?

Not to be critical, but I wish we could get white students to do with racial justice what they’ve done to protest school shootings. Determined white people can bring about institutional change. The student movement drove LBJ (President Lyndon Johnson) out of the White House. Don’t forget, there were a good number of whites who joined the sit-ins back in the 1960s.

By the way, I’m hard on black folks, too. They’ve got their own work to do.

What do you feel has been your most impactful work?
That is a tough question. Probably the number of people touched by our message on racism. “White privilege” is a phrase more and more people are beginning to accept. Receptivity has improved so the willingness of people to listen, participate in workshops and honestly answer questions has increased. Some people, and the numbers are increasing, are beginning to take responsibility at least verbally and consciously.

I key on action. There is too much paralysis by analysis on the subject of race. Overall, I am more optimistic than pessimistic about reducing racism.

A number of suburban Chicago mayors attend the Dr. King Remembrance dinner. Do any of the suburban municipalities stand out for their work on racial justice?
I think the mayor of Hoffman Estates, Bill McLeod, has done a good job. I think he is the only mayor in the northwest area working to keep Dr. King’s dream alive in a public way. They have an annual Dr. King remembrance event and a more welcoming attitude to African-Americans. Also, they have diversity in their corporate objectives in a public space.

Some brief comments:
I grew up in Georgetown, IL, a city of 4,000 people. I kept saying in school; “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” but I could not be a Boy Scout, could not go bowling, could not eat at a restaurant, could not use public restrooms, had to sit in the balcony at the movies and Blacks could only use the skating rink on Wednesday night. White people told me this was just because of the color of my skin.

I grew up on the term “boy.” I was working at Chanute Air Force base and my boss always told me: “Boy do this, boy do that.” “Boy” made me want to go to college.

What do you want your legacy to be?
I want my legacy to be saying the unpopular thing that needs to be said. Somehow, we’ve got to stir the souls of people and get them to confront the evil of racism. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (addressed to “My Dear Fellow Clergymen” in April 1963) does not blame the KKK and the Trumps of the world, he blamed all the good folks who talk about justice but do nothing and remain silent.

Thank you, Rev. Brooks.

Rev Clyde H Brooks

Biography of Rev. Clyde H. Brooks

Rev. Brooks was born in Danville, Illinois and grew up in a small town just south of Danville by the name of Georgetown. His career spans over a half century—a career of promoting justice, equality and unity.

Appointed by the Governor, Rev. Brooks has served as a member of the Illinois Prisoner Review Board where he helped to oversee the faith of thousands of prisoners in the Illinois Correctional system. He was also appointed by the Governor to the Illinois Human Rights Commission and as a consultant to the Illinois Department of Corrections. He was also the first African American to teach at the St. Mary of the Lake Seminary. He also served on the faculty of Harper College in Palatine, Illinois and taught in the Chicago Public School system.

He served as the National Director for Fair Labor Standards and Equal Employment Opportunity for Blue Cross and Blue Shield for 12 years and after 23 years, retired as a Deputy Sheriff with the Cook County Sheriff. Rev. Brooks has been a teacher and high school counselor in the Chicago Public School System.

Rev. Brooks founded the Minority Economic Resources Corporation (“MERC”) where he led a movement that resulted in the employment of thousands of minorities and women in the private-sector and brokered millions of dollars in contracts between minority and women owned firms with major corporations. MERC became the Illinois Commission on Diversity and Human Relations (“ICDHR”). Rev. Brooks is now Chairman and CEO of the ICDHR where he leads a movement to teach young African American men how to interface with the police on the streets. He also leads the Black-White Divide movement, an initiative that has encouraged thousands of community leaders and citizens to find comfort in talking about race. He has appeared on the weekly television show, Sixty Minutes, leading the fight against the management of African Americans in the integration in housing movement.

Reverend Brooks worked with Dr. King in the Chicago Civil Rights Movement, the Selma to Montgomery Campaign and worked with Dr. King in planning the March on Poverty Campaign. He also served as a member of the National Board of Directors of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the only organization by Dr. King, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia for more than 30 years. He has led the annual remembrance of Dr. King in Chicago for 52 consecutive years. More than 52,000 concerned leaders and residents have participated in these remembrances.

Reverend Brooks has been honored by many, including the late Ronald Reagan, former President of the United States for his work in promoting economic rights for Americans.

As an ordained minister, Reverend Brooks continues to promote critical thinking, especially among church leaders and educators. He earned his B. S and M.S. Degrees from Western Illinois University and has worked on his Ph.D. in Sociology.