Remembering Benjamin Hooks Civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks, who died Thursday at 85, revived the NAACP as the organization began to falter in the years following the peak of the civil rights movement. In 15 years as executive director (1977-1992) he bolstered the organization's national prominence and added thousands of new members. Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young joins Michel Martin to remember Hooks' life and accomplishments.
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Remembering Benjamin Hooks

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Remembering Benjamin Hooks

Remembering Benjamin Hooks

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the Cuban government is getting out the barbershop and beauty shop business. We'll hear more about what this means in just a few minutes.

But, first, we have some sad news. Civil Rights leader Benjamin Hooks passed away early this morning at his home in Nashville. He was 85 years old. He leaves behind a long legacy of public service, chiefly with the NAACP. In 1977, he was elected as the executive director of the NAACP and served as the head of that organization for 16 years. In 2007, President George W. Bush presented Hooks with the presidential medal of freedom, the country's highest civilian honor.

Joining us to talk about the life and legacy of Benjamin Hooks is former Atlanta mayor, Andrew Young. He's also a former ambassador to the United Nations. He was the first African-American to serve in that position, also is a long-tenured civil rights leader. And thank you so much for joining us, and our condolences.

REverend ANDREW YOUNG (Former Atlanta Mayor, Former U.N. Ambassador): Well, it's good to join you. But it's a difficult occasion and yet it's not a difficult occasion. I don't know anybody that lived a more triumphant life than Ben Hooks and his wife Frances. I knew him as a pastor in Memphis when he was one of the first of the pastors to come together to organize a political organization to influence Tennessee politics.

Interestingly enough, one was Democrat, one was Republican and one was independent. But these three black leaders really had a major influence on Tennessee politics. Ben Hooks was a very active board member and a very close friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., and someone that Dr. King always consulted before we made a major move.

Then he organized a bank and later became a representative on the Federal Communications Commission. So the opening up of airwaves was one of a part of his legacy, the empowerment of minorities and women owners in radio and television stations. So he had a wonderful life. I never heard him complain. I never heard him sad. And he was one of the best preachers I ever heard.

MARTIN: You know one of the things that I had forgotten is that he took over the NAACP in 1977, at a time when the organization was in some difficulty. And we had an interview with him, he had an interview with NPR about his work, and I just want to play a short clip from that conversation. Here it is.

(Soundbite of recording)

Pastor BENJAMIN HOOKS (Civil Rights Activist): 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. Now, once we start digging into these economic issues, resistance may grow, but Martin King said something to me that was 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.

MARTIN: Which is a pretty good saying there. And I think it's also worth noting that at the time he took that office, that there was a rash of mail bombs targeting civil rights officials and individuals throughout the South. Two people were killed in 1989 and he took the leadership of that organization at a time when it wasn't that easy to do.

I wanted to ask you, what do you think was his philosophy around, you know, moving the organization from the activism era to the era of kind of the ongoing work of equal opportunity?

Rev. YOUNG: Well, actually, the NAACP, from its foundation in 1906, has been dedicated to the ongoing work of fulfilling the promises of the Constitution to all Americans. And, actually, they were never in the forefront of the activist part. I don't think any - either Roy Wilkins or Ben ever went to jail, but they were the lawyers and they were the legislators. They were the ones who were there in Washington lobbying to translate the action into institutional change.

So they have been - in fact, Dr. King would never let SCLC sell memberships because he said we dont want to be an organization, we're a movement. Our civil rights organization is the NAACP, working with our people in the Urban League, working with businesses and government. And he was very clear about that from the very beginning.

And even though Ben was the president of the NAACP, he continued to sit on the SCLC board as long as there was a board.

MARTIN: How will you remember him? And I take your point that he had a rich and full life and did accomplish many things.

Rev. YOUNG: Well, I remember him...

MARTIN: What will you remember about him?

Rev. YOUNG: I remember him because almost every time I heard him speak he closed with a hymn: A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify. A never-dying love to save, and fit it from the sky. To serve this present age, our calling to fulfill, and oh may I something, something to do my Masters will.

And he was basically a preacher and a lawyer and a banker and an FCC regulator, and one of the best rounded, happiest, loving men I ever knew. And he had a -he has a marvelous wife who was with him every inch of the way. And my sympathy is for Frances.

Ben has gone on to a glory that he worked for all his life. Those who stay behind are the ones that we have to not forget because they need our support now more than ever.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for joining us. The Reverend Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta, former ambassador to the United Nations. He was kind enough to join us on the phone from Atlanta. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rev. YOUNG: Okay. Bye-bye.

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