Commission on Human Rights
State Human Rights Commission mourns death of Civil Rights Champion Benjamin Hooks
America last week lost one of its most beloved civil rights leaders. Benjamin Lawson Hooks passed away April 15 in Memphis, Tenn. He was 85.
The longtime executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was elected in 1976 at a time when membership in the oldest civil rights organization in the nation was in decline and passion for the movement waned. He rejuvenated the NAACP and increased its membership by the hundreds of thousands. Through his efforts, the group’s funding soared, allowing him to oversee its federal aid to cities, push positions on affirmative action, and forge foreign relations with repressive governments such as South Africa. He led the NAACP’s domestic policy decisions of every sort. Although legal segregation had ended with the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Act by the time he took the helm, Hooks wielded his power to battle racism and the mistreatment of African Americans and other minorities throughout his tenure. He spoke truth to power at every turn, blasting racist policy makers and local governments and overseeing litigation of unfair policy and law.
John J. Johnson, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights in Louisville, worked for several years as Hooks’ executive assistant and as a vice president of the national NAACP in Baltimore, Md. The two became close, lifelong friends.
“Dr. Hooks was passionate about his work in the faith community and in the civil rights community,” Johnson said. “While at the NAACP, it was not unusual for him to work until the wee hours of the morning on various projects, and after such a long night, to get up early and catch a flight to New York or Los Angeles,” he said.
Due to what Hooks called his duty and responsibility, he stayed at the NAACP until he was 67 years old, retiring finally in 1992. During his valedictory speech to the membership, he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith.”
Only a few years previously in 1990, Hooks and his family were targets of bombings against leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Hooks visited with then Pres. George H.W. Bush at the Whitehouse to discuss his concern about racial tensions in the U.S. While gaining the administration’s support against racially motivated crime, Hooks remained critical of the lack of federal funds available for inner city projects and public education.
Hooks’ contributions to the American Civil Rights Movement were vast. Born in Memphis, Tenn., in 1925, his family stressed the value of education. From 1941 to 1943, he attended LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis. He graduated from Howard University in Washington D.C. in 1944. He then served in the military during WWII guarding Italian prisoners of war interred in the U.S. He later spoke of the humiliation of watching the POWs he guarded being allowed to eat in restaurants from which he was barred because of his color. Though this was not his first encounter with bigotry, it was one that left an indelible mark. After the war, he enrolled in DePaul University in Chicago, Ill., and earned his law degree in 1948. Ironically, he returned to Tennessee to practice in a state that had earlier refused to admit him to a law school because he was black.
As his reputation and influence grew, he was asked to participate in the litigation strategy along with other black Southern attorneys in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown versus the Board of Education in 1954. Their victory culminated in the court’s decision to prohibit segregation in the nation’s schools.
In 1956, he was ordained as a Baptist minister. For 52 years until he retired last year due to failing health, he pastored of the Greater Middle Baptist Church of Memphis even as he carried out the other aspects of his historic and prominent career. He joined Martin Luther King Jr. and other Southern black leaders to help form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As a member of the SCLC, he became a pioneer in boycotts, demonstrations, and NAACP-sponsored sit-ins.
“Ben Hooks was a man of great faith,” Kentucky Human Rights Executive Director Johnson said. “He knew what was right, he knew he was called to be a catalyst for change, and he never wavered,” he said.
Hooks continued to practice law and began a career in Tennessee state politics. In 1965, he became the first black criminal court judge in Tennessee’s history and the first black judge in the South since reconstruction. In 1972, Pres. Richard Nixon appointed Hooks as a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. He was the first African American FCC commissioner in the nation and advanced the causes of minority-owned television and radio stations. Hooks completed his term as a commissioner in 1978, but continued to work for more minority employment in the broadcast and entertainment industry.
President George W. Bush in 2007 presented Hooks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the country's highest civilian honors. "Dr. Hooks was a calm yet forceful voice for fairness, opportunity and personal responsibility. He never tired or faltered in demanding that our nation live up to its founding ideals of liberty and equality," Bush said.
Hooks visited Louisville, Ky., on many occasions in support of the local NAACP and the promotion of civil rights in the area. He performed the wedding ceremonies of two of John J. Johnson’s daughters. The Kentucky Human Rights executive director attended the wake and funeral on Tuesday, April 20-21. He did not attend as a representative of the NAACP but as a member of Hooks’ family.
“Dr. Hooks was my surrogate father, my mentor, and one of the greatest influences an African American man or any American man could ever hope to have,” Johnson said. “I have no words for how much he will be missed,” he said.
Hooks was a lifelong advocate of self-help within the black community. He accepted no excuse for the neglect of individual advancement in spite of the long and hard American history of discrimination and its effects. He wanted younger black Americans to continue to embrace the Civil Rights Movement and take it forward.
“A young black man can’t understand what it means to have something he has never been denied,” Hooks once told a reporter from U.S. News and World Report. “I can’t make them understand the mental relief I feel at the rights we have,” he said. “It almost infuriates me that people don’t understand what integration has done for this country.”