Former NAACP Chief Benjamin Hooks Dies

Civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks, who spent 15 years at the helm of the NAACP, died Thursday in Memphis. He was 85.

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Civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks has died after a long illness. He was a lawyer, a minister, a criminal court judge and he led the NAACP from 1977 to 1993.

In 2007, Benjamin Hooks received the nation's highest civilian honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

NPR's Allison Keyes has this remembrance.

ALLISON KEYES: The current chairman of the board of the NAACP, Roslyn Brock, recalls Hooks as a phenomenal leader.

Ms. ROSLYN BROCK (Chairman, Board of Directors, NAACP): He was very, very personable, insightful and really, really serious about the business of civil rights and social justice in this nation.

KEYES: Hooks says fighting for civil rights was in his genes. Hooks was born in 1925 in segregated Memphis, Tennessee. His grandmother was involved with the NAACP after it was founded in 1909. Hooks told NPR he wanted to follow the family tradition.

Mr. BENJAMIN HOOKS (Former Executive Director, NAACP): I had made up my mind at some point that I wanted to use my life to batter down the wrongs of segregation.

KEYES: After returning from a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, Hooks earned a law degree then joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. An ordained Baptist minister, Hooks marched and sponsored sit-ins and became the first black criminal court judge in Tennessee.

In 1972, Hooks became the first black appointee to the Federal Communications Commission and fought to increase ownership of TV and radio stations among people of color.

Professor RON WALTERS (Government and Politics, University of Maryland): He was, I think, understanding that blacks were making progress coming out of the civil rights movement, so he wanted to focus on things that were not yet done.

KEYES: Those things included poverty and education, says political analyst Ron Walters, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland. So when Hooks became the NAACP's executive director in 1977, Hooks says he wanted to make sure the group wasn't focused solely on the middle class.

Prof. WALTERS: He saw fit to go back in a way and serve his community.

Reverend JESSE JACKSON SR. (Civil Rights Activist): He never stopped fighting.

KEYES: Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson Sr. recalls Hooks as a friendly, funny man who not only fought for the right to vote but also taught people to use that right responsibly.

Many credit Hooks with helping the organization survive questions about its relevancy and focus before he left in 1993.

Jackson says young people should remember that Hooks fought for rights many now take for granted.

Rev. JACKSON: You can now go to use a hotel or motel, or park, a library. Ben helped to knock down that wall. Ben helped knock down walls for this generation to walk across bridges.

KEYES: On the Web page of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change is a quote from Hooks: We've come a long way, but it's like nibbling the edges of darkness.

Hooks was 85 years old.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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Civil Rights Leader Benjamin Hooks Dies

  • Benjamin Hooks smiles during a news conference in St. Louis on May 8, 2006. Hooks, a champion of minorities and a former executive director of the NAACP, died early Thursday in Memphis, Tenn. He was 85.
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    Benjamin Hooks smiles during a news conference in St. Louis on May 8, 2006. Hooks, a champion of minorities and a former executive director of the NAACP, died early Thursday in Memphis, Tenn. He was 85.
    James A. Finley/File/AP
  • Linda Brown Smith (left), the plaintiff in the 1954 landmark case that resulted in school desegregation, and Hooks are shown on the steps of the South Carolina State House on the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
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    Linda Brown Smith (left), the plaintiff in the 1954 landmark case that resulted in school desegregation, and Hooks are shown on the steps of the South Carolina State House on the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
    File/AP
  • Hooks stands with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in Washington on May 4, 1982. Following Kennedy's death in 2009, Hooks told a TV station that he enjoyed it when the senator gave him a "southern introduction."
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    Hooks stands with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in Washington on May 4, 1982. Following Kennedy's death in 2009, Hooks told a TV station that he enjoyed it when the senator gave him a "southern introduction."
    Dennis Cook/File/AP
  • The Rev. Al Sharpton (second from left) and Hooks (center) accept candles from future New York Supreme Court Justice Laura Blackburne at a memorial commemorating a racially motivated attack in Queens, N.Y., on Dec. 27, 1987.
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    The Rev. Al Sharpton (second from left) and Hooks (center) accept candles from future New York Supreme Court Justice Laura Blackburne at a memorial commemorating a racially motivated attack in Queens, N.Y., on Dec. 27, 1987.
    New York Times Co./Getty Images
  • Hillary Clinton, then a senator and Democratic presidential candidate, stands with Hooks (center) and Charles Taylor outside room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, on April 4, 2008, in Memphis, Tenn.
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    Hillary Clinton, then a senator and Democratic presidential candidate, stands with Hooks (center) and Charles Taylor outside room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, on April 4, 2008, in Memphis, Tenn.
    Win McNamee/Getty Images
  • Coretta Scott King (second from left), Southern Christian Leadership Council President Joseph Lowery and his wife (center), and Hooks (right) march to the Forsyth County Courthouse in Cumming, Ga., as part of a demonstration against white supremacists on Jan. 24, 1987.
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    Coretta Scott King (second from left), Southern Christian Leadership Council President Joseph Lowery and his wife (center), and Hooks (right) march to the Forsyth County Courthouse in Cumming, Ga., as part of a demonstration against white supremacists on Jan. 24, 1987.
    Ric Feld/AP
  • Hooks presents the Dr. H. Claude Hudson Medal of Freedom Award and the 1984 Olympics Medal of Friendship Award to the Jackson family, represented by Michael Jackson, on July 6, 1984.
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    Hooks presents the Dr. H. Claude Hudson Medal of Freedom Award and the 1984 Olympics Medal of Friendship Award to the Jackson family, represented by Michael Jackson, on July 6, 1984.
    Orlin Wagner/File/AP
  • President Bush (left) presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Hooks on November 5, 2007.
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    President Bush (left) presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Hooks on November 5, 2007.
    Ron Edmonds/File/AP

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Benjamin L. Hooks, a champion of minorities and the poor who as executive director of the NAACP increased the group's stature, died Thursday morning at his home in Memphis. He was 85, and had been ill for some time.

"I don't know anybody who lived a more triumphant life," former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young told NPR. "He was a preacher. And a lawyer. And a banker. And an FCC regulator. And one of the best-rounded, happiest men I ever knew."

In 15 years at the helm of the NAACP, Hooks turned around an organization that had begun to falter after the peak of the civil rights movement. By the time he left in 1992, the group had raised membership ranks by several hundred thousand and had climbed out of debt.

In 2007, President George W. Bush presented Hooks with the Medal of Freedom, one of the nation's highest civilian honors.

Hooks became executive director in 1977, taking over a group that was $1 million in debt and had shrunk to 200,000 members from nearly a half-million in the 1950s and 1960s. He pledged to increase enrollment and raise money for the organization.

"He came in at a time the NAACP was struggling and gave it a strong foundation. He brought dignity and strong leadership to the organization," said State Rep. Ulysses Jones of Tennessee, a member of the church where Hooks was pastor.

Hooks told Ebony magazine at the time that "the civil rights movement is not dead."

"If anyone thinks that we are going to stop agitating, they had better think again," he said. "If anyone thinks that we are going to stop litigating, they had better close the courts. If anyone thinks that we are not going to demonstrate and protest, they had better roll up the sidewalks."

Young recalled Hooks as a pastor in Memphis who teamed with other ministers to create an organization to have a voice in Tennessee politics.

Later, Young said, Hooks became one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s close advisers.

"He was someone who Dr. King always consulted before we made a major move," Young said.

After Hooks left the NAACP, he reviewed how the struggle for equality had changed over the decades in an interview with NPR.

"Now, the fight is not over water fountains, it's not over riding the bus, it's over who's going to drive that bus," he said. "Now, once we start digging into these economic issues, resistance may grow. But Martin King said something to me that's very profound. I may not quote it exactly correct — 'The law may not make you love me, but the law can make you treat me right until you learn how to love me.' "

Hooks' inspiration to fight social injustice and bigotry stemmed from his experience of guarding Italian prisoners of war while serving overseas in the Army during World War II — foreign prisoners were allowed to eat in "for whites only" restaurants while he was barred from them.

Hooks had grown up in the segregated South, but when no Southern law school would admit him, he used the G.I. Bill to attend DePaul University in Chicago, where he earned a law degree in 1948. He later opened his own law practice in his hometown of Memphis.

In 1965 he was appointed to a newly created seat on the Tennessee Criminal Court, making him the first black judge since Reconstruction in a state trial court anywhere in the South.

President Richard Nixon nominated Hooks to the Federal Communications Commission in 1972. He was its first black commissioner, serving for five years before resigning to lead the NAACP.

At the FCC, he addressed the lack of minority leadership in media and persuaded the commission to propose a new rule requiring TV and radio stations to be offered publicly before they could be sold. Minority employment in broadcasting grew from 3 percent to 15 percent during his tenure.

"The opening up of airwaves was a part of his legacy — the empowerment of minorities and women owners in radio and television stations," Young said.

Hooks also created an initiative that expanded employment opportunities for blacks in Major League Baseball and launched a program where corporations participated in economic development projects in black communities.

State Rep. John Deberry, a fellow minister and chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus, said the loss of Hooks is a sobering reminder that "we are losing an incredible generation of men and women who changed the world."

In 1989, a string of gasoline bomb attacks in the South killed a federal judge in Alabama and a black civil rights lawyer in Savannah, Ga. Another bomb was intercepted at an NAACP office in Jacksonville, Fla., and an Atlanta television station received a letter threatening more attacks on judges, attorneys and NAACP leaders.

"We believe that this latest incident is an effort to intimidate our association, to strike fear in our hearts," Hooks said at the time. "It will not succeed. We intend to go about our business."

Walter Leroy Moody, now 75, was convicted of the killings and other charges in 1997 and remains on Alabama's death row.

In his last keynote speech to an NAACP national convention in 1992, Hooks urged members who had found financial success to never forget those less fortunate.

"Remember," he said, "that down in the valley where crime abounds and dope proliferates ... where babies are having babies, our brothers and sisters are crying to us, 'Is anyone listening? Does anyone care?' "

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