Civil Rights Leader Benjamin Hooks Dead At 85

Hooks was a longtime executive director of the NAACP. In 1965, he was appointed to a newly created seat on the Tennessee Criminal Court, making him the first black judge since Reconstruction. He died Thursday.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We look back now at the life of long time civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks, who died yesterday. He became a leader of the NAACP in the late '70s as its membership was declining. And in 1993, Benjamin Hooks spoke to NPR just before returning to his hometown of Memphis for a retirement party.

Mr. BENJAMIN HOOKS (Former Executive Director, NAACP): Im going home to a city that has a black mayor, federal judge. Im going to a city that has a black chief of police. And when I go to the Peabody Hotel for that dinner, it's a place where I couldnt go out at all, except as a cook or some kind of cleanup boy or a busboy. If I went in otherwise, I'd been beaten to death.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Juan Williams spoke about the role Benjamin Hooks played in the Civil Rights Movement.

JUAN WILLIAMS: he's sort of a connective tissue between what some might call the Moses Generation - people associated with Dr. King, sort of the breakthrough element in the '50s and '60s, the heydays of the civil rights era in the country - and what some might call the Joshua Generation, as best personified by President Obama.

MONTAGNE: And, Juan, in terms of how he came to be Benjamin Hooks, I mean he comes from quite an accomplished family.

WILLIAMS: His grandmother, in fact, was the second black woman ever to earn a college degree in the United States. She went to Berea College. And his father owned an elite photo studio in Memphis that was the delight of all black families throughout Tennessee.

And Ben Hooks got an education - went to LeMoyne - and then went off to war in World War II and there was in Italy. And it was there that he felt that really, I think, not only that he was battling fascists and Nazis, but that he had to battle American racism - segregation in the military - and that he felt the sting of this discrimination so strongly that he'd decided, you know, when I go back home it's not going to be just a matter of being in the black bourgeois. But Im going to become part of this Civil Rights Movement to try to battle segregation.

MONTAGNE: Although when he did come back and became an important part of that movement, he clashed with Martin Luther King, Jr.

WILLIAMS: He did. I mean the most famous point of tension had to do with King's opposition to the war in Vietnam. And, you know, when King is, toward the end of his life, making statements in opposition to the war, there is Ben Hooks saying thats a mistake. And saying, you know, why is King alienating the political structure thats so important to the advancement of the civil rights cause in the country?

So what you see is that Ben Hooks who was a Republican and someone who comes out of the NAACP tradition of let's change the laws, let's work with the political process, oftentimes was seen as a moderate, as opposed to, not only the likes of Dr. King, but especially young people who were involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

But, you know, it's interesting. Even when he's appointed to the Federal Communications Commission by President Nixon, the Congressional Black Caucus says, you know, we're not so pleased with this appointment. Later they come to a - there's initial opposition from lots of people who see Ben Hooks as, not only too moderate, but possibly too conservative.

MONTAGNE: In the end though, especially with the NAACP, which he so identified with at this point, did he prevail in a sense historically?

WILLIAMS: I think in a sense he does, because Ben Hooks is really the one who says the NAACP, the Civil Rights Movement has to go in a new direction. And that new direction is about business opportunity and it's about educating people to have the skills to get involved with those jobs. It's about persisting in the call for affirmative action, allowing black people to get into the economic mainstream of the country, and the political blood flow of the country.

And that is what would allow me to say that I think Hooks did prevail, in terms of setting the direction of the civil rights movement in a new way that has come to be the reality of the start of the 21st century.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Juan Williams speaking to us about Benjamin Hooks, longtime civil rights leader, who died yesterday. Thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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