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The life and work of Benjamin Hooks

Joseph Wright | 4/21/2010, 5 p.m.

Rev. Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks, a lawyer, minister, and judge, who took over the leadership reins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1977, recently died at the age of 85, after fighting a long illness.
When Hooks took over the position of executive director of the civil rights organization, it was $1 million in debt and its membership had dwindled to 200,000, a sharp decline from its nearly half a million members it enjoyed throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
"When he took over at that time, there had been mismanagement and, in some cases, unethical handling of funds. That led to the debt," said John Mack, former president of the Los Angeles Urban League.
"Additionally, people were disillusioned by this and were skeptical about donating to the NAACP, which led to the progressive decline in membership. Benjamin Hooks was able to right the ship and regain people's confidence."
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama remembered Dr. Hooks and offered their condolensces to the pioneering judge's family. "Michelle and I were saddened to hear of the passing of Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks," the commander in chief said in a statement. "As I was running for this office, I had the honor of spending some time with Dr. Hooks, and hearing about his place in our American story.
"For 16 years, he ran the NAACP with a strong hand and a nimble mind. And all the while, he not only reminded us of that historic organization's noble mission; he inspired each and every one of us to play our part in forging a stronger nation for all Americans. While many would have been satisfied with that achievement, Dr. Hooks was a man driven to accomplish so much more. A true trail blazer, he served as the first African American criminal court judge in his native Tennessee. He became the first African American to serve on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). He earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And throughout it all, he made the time to serve others as a mentor and preach the gospel as a pastor.
"Our national life is richer," the Obamas concluded, "for the time Dr. Hooks spent on this earth. And our union is more perfect for the way he spent it: giving a voice to the voiceless. Michelle and I offer our thoughts and prayers to his wife, Francis; his daughter, Patricia Gray; and all who knew Dr. Hooks through his extraordinary good works."
Current NAACP President Benjamin Jealous recalled a speech Hooks gave last year. Jealous commented that it "was as fiery as any he had given 50 years earlier," despite his declining health at the time. "Right up to the last (moment of his life), he conveyed the need for us to fight," Jealous added.
An ordained Baptist minister and practicing attorney, Hooks vowed to keep the NAACP vital by addressing many national issues from a non-White perspective. "I think you will find us dealing with issues that are not always perceived as concerns of the NAACP," he said. "We will take stands on the environment, ecology, and energy. Also, the problems of the cities, national health insurance, welfare, and the criminal justice system."
Delivering on that promise, Executive Director Hooks had the NAACP issue formal opinions and criticisms on topics as diverse as the lack of Black executives in Hollywood, the role of the Black middle class in the improvement of life in the ghettos, and the nomination and confirmation of Judge Clarence Thomas.
In 1991, Arizona Republic correspondent Ben Cole wrote: "Often in the past, Benjamin Hooks' words have been heeded by his fellow Americans and have been turned into national policies that have benefitted the whole society."
Even with that, Hooks saw much work that had yet to be done in the struggle for civil rights. "It is a sad commentary on our times that blatant appeals to race still can divide us, when so many urgent problems beset our nation," he said in 1991. "It is also deeply disappointing that President (George H.W.) Bush, for whom Blacks and other minorities entertained so much hope and respect after eight years of Reaganism, appears to be following his predecessor's philosophy."
Benjamin Hooks was not immune to racism and civil rights violations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1925, the fifth of seven children of Robert B. and Bessie Hooks. Although his family was what is termed "Black middle class"--his father owned a photography studio--Hooks remembered wearing hand-me-down clothes and watching his mother stretch the groceries so everyone in the family had enough to eat. The future minister's parents were hard-working people, and his grandmother was one of the first African American women to graduate from college (Berea College-Kentucky). Therefore, Hooks was encouraged to do well in school and to prepare for higher education.
As a young man, Hooks was drawn to the ministry, although he was very shy. His father actively discouraged the calling, however, so Hooks enrolled in a pre-law course of studies at LeMoyne College in Memphis. By that time in his life, he could already add his name to the list of African Americans who were tired of being forced to use segregated restrooms, lunch counters, water fountains, and other public facilities. "I wish I could tell you every time I was on the highway and couldn't use a restroom," he said in U.S. News and World Report. "My bladder is messed up because of that; stomach is messed up from eating cold sandwiches."
During World War II, Hooks found himself in the humiliating position of guarding Italian prisoners of war who were allowed to eat in restaurants that were off limits to him. The experience helped to deepen his resolve to do something about discrimination in the South. Immediately following his military duty--he was eventually promoted to the rank of staff sergeant--Hooks went north to Chicago to study law at DePaul University. Because of segregation laws against Blacks in the 1940s, no law school in Tennessee would accept him.
Hooks earned his law degree in 1948 and returned to Memphis, determined to help in the fight to eliminate segregation. He passed the Tennessee Bar and opened up his own law practice, confronting prejudice repeatedly. "At that time you were insulted by law clerks, excluded from White bar associations, and when I was in court, I was lucky to be called 'Ben,'" he told Jet Magazine. "Usually it was just 'boy.' But the judges were always fair. The discrimination of those days has changed and, today (January 1990), the South is ahead of the North in many respects in civil rights progress."
Although a successful lawyer, Hooks still felt a calling to the ministry, especially after joining civil rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Hooks was ordained a Baptist minister and began to preach regularly at the Middle Baptist Church in Memphis in 1956. He also laid the groundwork for the NAACP-sponsored restaurant sit-ins and other boycotts. He entered state politics, making unsuccessful bids for state legislature in 1954 and for juvenile court judge in 1959 and 1963.
Despite his losses, Hooks was a personable man who attracted not only Black voters but liberal Whites, as well. By 1965, he was so well known that Tennessee Governor Frank G. Clement appointed him to fill a vacancy in the Shelby County criminal court. He thus became the first Black criminal court judge in the history of Tennessee. The following year he won election to a full term in the office.
In 1972, Hooks moved to Washington, D.C., where he became the first Black appointee to the Federal Communications Commission but the Memphis native did not go into the position as as novice; he had been a producer and host of several local television shows in his hometown. As a member of the FCC, Hooks addressed the dearth of non-White ownership of television and radio stations, the non-White employment statistics for the broadcasting industry, and the image of African Americans in the mass media. While Hooks was with the FCC, non-White employment in broadcasting rose from 3 percent to 15 percent. Though he left the FCC in 1978, Hooks continued to fight for Black involvement in the entertainment industry.
After taking over leadership of the NAACP in 1977, Hooks had some interesting battles with Margaret Bush Wilson, chair of the NAACP board of directors. At one point in 1983, Wilson suspended Hooks after the two argued over organizational policy. Wilson accused Hooks of mismanagement, but the charges were never proven. In fact, a majority of the 64-member board backed Hooks and he never officially left his post. He was secure as the executive director from that point on. He oversaw the organization's positions on affirmative action, federal aid to cities, foreign relations with repressive governments such as South Africa during its era of apartheid, and domestic policy decisions of every sort. Hooks liked to call himself "just a poor little ol' country preacher." However, at any time, he could point to a long list of personal accomplishments.
By the time Hooks retired as NAACP executive director in 1992, he and the venerable civil rights organization had successfully pushed to extend the Voting Rights Act in 1982, establish a Fair Housing Act in 1983, and enact a Civil Rights Act in 1991. All passed despite White House opposition from the Republican Reagan and Bush administrations of 1980-92.
In the early 1990s, in the midst of bombings that Hooks, his family, and other civil rights leaders were the targets of, the Memphis minister visited the White House on multiple occassions to discuss the rising tensions between the races with the elder President Bush. Although he emerged from the meeting with the government's full support against racially motivated bomb attacks, Hooks would later be highly critical of the Bush administration's lack of action regarding inner city poverty and lack of support for public education.
As the years moved on, Hooks remained a staunch fighter for the rights of Black people and a loyal minister of the gospel. In 2007, President George W. Bush presented Hooks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the United States' highest civilian honors. "He never tired or faltered in demanding that our nation live up to its founding ideals of liberty and quality," Bush said.
Despite his advancing years, the charismatic attorney preached regularly at Middle Baptist Church until last year. During his final sermon, he broke into a gospel song.
Services were held Wednesday in Memphis, Tennessee at the Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ.
Hooks is survived by his wife, Francis, his daughter, Patricia Gray, and two grandsons.