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?' "