HKS Professor Cornell William Brooks has spent a lifetime taking on difficult topics. As president of the NAACP, he oversaw dozens of grassroots investigations into instances of racial violence from alleged police brutality to hate crimes ranging from intimidation, assault, and murder; personally led a 1000 mile march for voting rights; directed a diverse legislative agenda representing 2000 local NAACP branches and a Washington federal office; and  laid the groundwork for the first statewide legal challenge to prison-based gerrymandering in Connecticut. As CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, he successfully lobbied for the passage of six criminal justice reform bills in less than five years. He is an expert on the issue of reparations. And as an advocate for direct action and civil disobedience, he has faced down heckling, racial taunts, death threats, and violence.

Yet in the spring of 2023, Brooks, the Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice, took on what he says may be his most challenging cause: modern-day lynchings. The students in his class, “Creating Justice in Real Time: Vision, Strategies, and Campaigns” (MLD-375) turned their course into a semester-long study in support of an advocacy campaign for Willie Jones Jr. of Mississippi, a young Black man found dead, hanging from a tree in the yard of his white girlfriend. The case was ruled a suicide, but the civil rights organization JULIAN argued that the death was never properly investigated and worked, with support from the HKS students, to collect and prepare new evidence and to disprove the initial findings.

The students, five in all, traveled to Mississippi to work with JULIAN collecting and preparing evidence, with the full support of the other 50 students of the class who worked on other social justice campaigns.

Jill Cohen Jefferson.JULIAN founder Jill Cohen Jefferson doesn’t know exactly how the term “modern-day lynching” came about. “It’s not exactly a legal term,” she said. “We started using it to differentiate these cases, where a Black person dies and the facts don’t support the ruling, from historical lynchings.”

Jefferson was born and raised in Mississippi and of course had heard about lynchings from history but didn’t give them much thought. It was while she worked as a staffer in U.S. Representative John Lewis’ office on Capitol Hill that she came face-to-face with a modern-day lynching. “I met an investigative journalist covering historical lynchings and he was reviewing a 2010 event in Shoba County, Mississippi, that citizens were calling a lynching,” she said. Jefferson, who was about to enter law school, was so fascinated by the case that she decided to make the issue the focus of her legal career.

Chuck Meire.She connected with Brooks’ class via another HKS student, Chuck Meire MPP 2023, who had become aware of JULIAN during the course of his studies and thought their work would be perfect for an experiential course. Having heard about Brooks’ course, Meire told him about JULIAN and how they could use the expertise and passion of HKS students for a semester, especially on the Willie Jones Jr. case.  

“The phenomenon of modern-day lynching isn't well publicized, or because it's just psychologically easier for us as a society to put it away, nobody thinks about it in a contemporary context,” Meire said. He couldn’t believe something like that still happened, but Jefferson assured him it does, and JULIAN tracks the evidence to prove it so. “Once you realize it is still going on, I found it very difficult to walk away from.” Following graduation, Meire joined JULIAN as national policy director.

“The goal was to bring awareness to this case and come up with a strategy to secure criminal charges against the lynchers,” Jefferson explained. “The students reviewed action plans, assisted in developing a national mobilization effort, even offered insights on fundraising for the young organization.”

Cornell William Brooks.

“Lynchings were simply an extrajudicial murder; that's the formal definition. Tragically, the murders continue into the present and the definition has expanded. This may be emotionally shocking, but it is empirically and sadly true.”

Cornell William Brooks

After reading about the organization, Brooks asked, “What kind of cases do you take on? How do you engage?” After talking with Jefferson and her staff, he asked, “What kind of community support do you have? What are you lacking?” and “Will you do this work no matter what?” Satisfied with the answers, Brooks was on board.

“I literally said we need tough projects,” Brooks recalled. Modern-day lynchings fit the bill. Brooks explained that thousands of people have been lynched in the United States from the Civil War to the 1970s. “Lynchings were simply an extrajudicial murder,” he said. “That's the formal definition.” “Lynchings began centuries ago as a  form of vigilante justice across the United States, among its victims were Native Americans, ethnic Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Italian immigrants, Italian Americans, American Jews, and largely as well as most notoriously African Americans.

“The whole matter of lynching really continues into the present moment,” he said. “In the last century, we think of these extrajudicial killings as essentially civilians perpetrating their own form of frontier justice on Black bodies while law enforcement was often a willing and occasionally an unwilling, unwitting accomplice. But if we see the definition, the denotative and connotative meaning of lynching more broadly, more expansively, what we see is about a thousand people every year dying at the hands of the police. And so it's not merely early what civilians do with the police watching. It's also what police do as civilians are watching. George Floyd is a glaringly tragic example.” 

Brooks’ course offers students the opportunity to address current injustices in real time. Working with the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice, which Brooks directs, they help develop, for the organizations they collaborate with, legislative, legal, policy, best practice, organizing, communication, and moral framing strategies to address injustices. Students also develop policy deliverables: draft laws, ordinances, and/or budgets. Working with clients, scholars, advocates, researchers, and one another, students develop formal advocacy campaign plans for the organization—which are implemented by groups like JULIAN within one calendar year of the course. 

“Lynchings are not this horrific thing from the past,” noted Aisha Islam MPP 2024 and a student in the class. “They didn't end with Emmett Till in 1955. They're still happening today pretty consistently, especially in the South.” noted that while many people felt compelled to protest these cases, they are concerned about their safety in the South. “People in the area tell us they would love to march, would love to protest, but people get shot. “They told us they can't always do that in the South. Key witnesses were pulling out of the case because they're concerned about safety.”

Jill Cohen Jefferson speaks in a classroom at Harvard Kennedy School
After two years of evidence gathering, interviews and reviewing FBI files, the JULIAN team, led by founder Jill Collen Jefferson, a judge in April awarded over $11 million to Jones’ family in a civil suit claiming wrongful death. On behalf of his estate, JULIAN has filed a motion with the district attorney of Mississippi’s first judicial court to reopen the criminal case, requesting a trial by jury. As of this writing, there has been no reply. Jefferson, center, appeared with Ayesha Islam MPP 2024 and Ayana Jones from JULIAN on a panel for the HKS course.

Just as powerful for the students were the personal connections they made, like with Jones’ mother, Tammie Townsend, hearing firsthand how this kind of violence impacts a community. Townsend lost her son, but also has had to endure the loss of contact with her grandchild—the child her son and his girlfriend had together. Since JULIAN unveiled all the evidence and inconsistencies in the case, the girlfriend’s family has refused to let Townsend see her grandson.

“That's the added, compounded heartbreak of this,” Islam said. “We were all in tears hearing about this. It makes you think about the ongoing loss and the ongoing pain that comes from incidents like this.” 

For Brooks, the real learning comes from being on the front lines. “Advocates are on the front lines of social justice,” he said. “They're in places where there's no one to do an economic analysis, no one to write a legal brief, no one to draft legislation, or provide the social science. They help you figure out which of these public policy options is the right option. I love that.”

At the final presentation seminar, Brooks spoke about W.E.B. Du Bois, the first Black man to earn a PhD from Harvard. “But I don't want to talk about him as one of the intellectuals of the 20th century. I don’t want to talk about him as an architect of the NAACP,” Brooks said. “I want to talk about him as a newly minted PhD who became obsessed with a case of lynching in Georgia.” 

He related the story of how Du Bois, upon hearing that a Black laborer, Sam Hose, had been lynched, and that bones from the victim’s hands were being sold as souvenirs  in an Atlanta store, made up his mind that the objective tone of a sociologist was not sufficient—he wanted to adopt the analytic voice of an advocate.

“That is precisely just what our students are doing in this moment,” Brooks said.

Banner image: Tammie Townsend holds a collage of photographs of her eldest son, Willie Jones Jr., 21, with family members, as she speaks about the incident where he was found hanging from a tree in his girlfriend's Scott County yard three years ago, April 27, 2021 at his grandmother's home in Forest, Miss. The collage is in the form of a "D," which plays off his nickname, "Duke." Photograph by AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Inline photograph by Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen

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