Hooks, Benjamin L. 1925–
Benjamin L. Hooks 1925–
Executive director of the NAACP, attorney, clergyman
For 15 years Benjamin L. Hooks presided over America’s largest and most influential organization for blacks, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Founded around the turn of the twentieth century, the NAACP was suffering from declining membership and prestige when Hooks assumed his role as executive director. Under his leadership, the organization has rebounded, adding several hundred thousand new members to its ranks. Hooks, himself an ordained Baptist minister and a practicing attorney, told the New York Daily News that he hopes to keep the NAACP vital by addressing many national issues from a minority perspective. “I think you will find us dealing with issues that are not always perceived as concerns of the NAACP,” he said. “We will take stands … on the environment, ecology, and energy … the problems of the cities, national health insurance, welfare, [and] the criminal justice system.”
Hooks kept his promise. Since 1977, when he became executive director, the NAACP has issued formal opinions on topics as diverse as the lack of black executives in Hollywood, the role of the black middle class in the improvement of life in the ghettos, and the 1991 nomination and confirmation of Judge Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. Arizona Republic correspondent Ben Cole wrote: “Often in the past, Benjamin Hooks’s words have been heeded by his fellow Americans and have been turned into national policies that have benefitted the whole society.” For his own part, Hooks sees much work yet to be done. “It is a sad commentary on our times that blatant appeals to race still can divide us when so many urgent problems beset our nation,” he said in the Houston Post. “It is also deeply disappointing that President Bush, for whom blacks and other minorities entertained so much hope and respect after eight disastrous years of Reaganism, appears to be following his predecessor’s philosophy.”
Benjamin Hooks is no stranger to racism and civil rights violations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1925, the fifth of seven children of Robert B. and Bessie Hooks. Although his family was comfortable by so-called black standards—his father owned a photography studio—Hooks can recall wearing hand-me-down clothes and watching his mother stretch the groceries so everyone had enough to eat. Hooks’s parents were both hardworking people, and his grandmother was the second
Born Benjamin Lawson Hooks, January 31, 1925, in Memphis, TN; son of Robert B. (a photographer) and Bessie (White) Hooks; married Frances Dancy (a teacher), March 21, 1952; children: Patricia. Education: Attended LeMoyne College, 1941-43, and Howard University, 1943-44; DePaul University, J.D., 1948. Religion: Baptist.
Ordained Baptist minister; lawyer in Memphis, TN, 1949-65 and 1968-72; assistant public defender, 1961-64; judge in Division IV Criminal Court of Shelby County, TN, 1966-68; pastor of Middle Baptist Church, Memphis, 1956-64, and Greater New Mount Moriah Baptist Church, Detroit, Ml, 1964-72; Federal Communications Commission, Washington, DC, member, 1972-78; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Baltimore, MD, executive director, 1977-92. Vice-president of Mutual Federal Savings and Loan Association, Memphis, 1955-69. Producer and host of television programs, including Conversations in Black and White, Forty Percent Speaks, and What Is Your Faith. Military service: U.S. Army; served in World War ll; became staff sergeant.
Awards: Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1986.
Addresses: Office —National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 4805 Mount Hope Dr., Baltimore, MD 21215.
As a young man Hooks was drawn to the ministry, although he was very shy. His father actively discouraged the calling, however, so Hooks enrolled in a pre-law course of studies at LeMoyne College in Memphis. By that time he could already add his name to the legion of black Americans who were tired of being forced to use segregated bathrooms, lunch counters, water fountains, and other public facilities. “I wish I could tell you every time I was on the highway and couldn’t use a restroom,” he said in U.S. News and World Report. “My bladder is messed up because of that. Stomach is messed up from eating cold sandwiches.”
During the Second World War, Hooks even found himself in the humiliating position of guarding Italian prisoners of war who were allowed to eat in restaurants that were off limits to him. The experience helped to deepen his resolve to do something about bigotry in the South. After his wartime service—he was promoted to the rank of staff sergeant—Hooks went north to Chicago to study law at DePaul University. No law school in his native Tennessee would admit him.
Hooks earned his J.D. degree in 1948 and promptly returned to Memphis, vowing to help break down segregation. He passed the Tennessee Bar examination and opened up his own law practice, confronting prejudice at every turn. “At that time you were insulted by law clerks, excluded from white bar associations and when I was in court, I was lucky to be called ‘Ben,’” he remembered in Jet magazine. “Usually it was just ‘boy.’ [But] the judges were always fair. The discrimination of those days has changed and, today, the South is ahead of the North in many respects in civil rights progress.”
By 1949 Hooks had earned a local reputation as one of the few black lawyers in Memphis. At the Shelby County fair, he met a pretty 24-year-old teacher named Frances Dancy. They began to date, and after a few months they became inseparable. They were married in Memphis in 1952. Mrs. Hooks recalled in Ebony magazine that her husband was “good looking, very quiet, very intelligent.” She added: “He loved to go around to churches and that type of thing, so I started going with him. He was really a good catch.”
Indeed, Hooks still felt a calling to the ministry, especially after he joined renowned civil rights activist and reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Hooks was ordained a Baptist minister and began to preach regularly at the Middle Baptist Church in Memphis in 1956. He also became a pioneer in the NAACP-sponsored restaurant sit-ins and other boycotts of consumer items and services. He entered state politics, making unsuccessful bids for the state legislature in 1954 and for juvenile court judge in 1959 and 1963. Despite his losses, the personable young Hooks attracted not only black voters but liberal whites as well. By 1965 he was well enough known that Tennessee governor Frank G. Clement appointed him to fill a vacancy in the Shelby County criminal court. He thus became the first black criminal court judge in Tennessee history. The following year he won election to a full term in the office.
By the late 1960s Hooks was spread thin as a judge, a businessman, a lawyer, and a minister. Twice a month he flew to Detroit and preached at the Greater New Mount Moriah Baptist Church. He also made himself available to the NAACP as needed for civil rights protests and marches. Fortunately for Hooks, he had married a woman who matched him in energy and stamina. Frances Hooks became her husband’s assistant, secretary, advisor, and travelling companion, even though it meant sacrificing her own distinguished career as a teacher and guidance counselor. “He said he needed me to help him,” Mrs. Hooks told Ebony. “Few husbands tell their wives that they need them after 30 years of marriage, so I gave it up and here I am. Right by his side.”
Side by side, Benjamin and Frances Hooks moved to Washington, D.C. in 1972, when Hooks became the first black appointee to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Hooks had been a producer and host of several local television shows in Memphis—in addition to his other duties—but it was his support of the Republican ticket that endeared him to Richard Nixon. As a member of the FCC, Hooks addressed the lack of minority ownership of television and radio stations, the minority employment statistics for the broadcasting industry, and the image of blacks in the mass media. While Hooks was with the FCC, minority employment in broadcasting rose from three percent to fifteen percent. Hooks has continued to fight for black involvement in the entertainment industry, even though he left the FCC in 1978.
On November 6, 1976, the 64-member board of directors of the NAACP elected Hooks executive director of the renowned civil rights organization. Founded in 1909 after a series of brutal lynchings in the South, the NAACP had earned a significant reputation as the history-making civil rights group. During its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s it had numbered almost half a million members, but in the late 1970s the membership had declined to near 200,000. Hooks was determined to add to the enrollment and to raise money for the organization’s severely depleted treasury, without changing the NAACP’s goals or mandates. “Black Americans are not defeated,” he told Ebony soon after his formal induction in 1977. “The civil rights movement is not dead. If anyone thinks that we are going to stop agitating, they had better think again. 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.”
In Hooks’s early years he weathered some bitter storms with Margaret Bush Wilson, chair of the NAACP’s board of directors. At one point in 1983, Wilson summarily suspended Hooks after the two quarrelled about organizational policy. Wilson accused Hooks of mismanagement, but the charges were never proven. In fact, a majority of the 64-member board backed Hooks, and he never officially left his post. He has been secure as the executive director ever since and has overseen the organization’s positions on affirmative action, federal aid to cities, foreign relations with repressive governments such as that in South Africa, and domestic policy decisions of every sort. Hooks likes to call himself “just a poor little ol’ country preacher,” but his modesty hardly hides his long list of sophisticated accomplishments.
Early in 1990 Hooks and his family were among the targets in a wave of bombings against civil rights leaders. Not for the first time, Hooks visited the White House to discuss the escalating tensions between races with President Bush. Although he emerged from that meeting with the government’s full support against racially-motivated bomb attacks, Hooks has been very critical of the current administration’s apparent lack of action concerning inner city poverty and lack of support for public education.
On the other hand, Hooks is not about to lay all the blame for America’s ills at the feet of its elected officials. He has been a staunch advocate of self-help among the black community, urging wealthy and middle-class blacks to give time and resources to those less fortunate. “It’s time today … to bring it out of the closet: No longer can we proffer polite, explicable, reasons why Black America cannot do more for itself,” he told the 1990 NAACP convention delegates, as quoted in the Chicago Tribune. “I’m calling for a moratorium on excuses. I challenge black America today—all of us—to set aside our alibis.”
By 1991 some younger members of the NAACP charged that Hooks had lost touch with the pulse of black America and ought to resign. Akron Beacon Journal staff writer Carole Cannon noted of the NAACP: “Critics say the organization is a dinosaur whose national leadership is still living in the glory days of the civil rights movement.” Cannon went on to quote Dr. Frederick Zak, a young local NAACP president, who said: “There is a tendency by some of the older people to romanticize the struggle—especially the marching and the picketing and the boycotting and the going to jail.”
For his part, Hooks feels that the perilous times of the civil rights movement should never be taken for granted, especially by those who were born in the aftermath of the movement’s gains. “A young black man can’t understand what it means to have something he’s never been denied,” Hooks told U.S. News and World Report. “I can’t make them understand the mental relief I feel at the rights we have. It almost infuriates me that people don’t understand what integration has done for this country.”
From the NAACP offices in Baltimore, Maryland, Hooks and his wife handled the group’s business and helped to plan for its future for more than 15 years. Himself a greatgrandfather, Hooks betrays his country preacher’s values when he suggests that family unity is essential if black people are to partake of the American dream. Hooks told the Arizona Republic that he hopes the escalating black-on-black violence is just a “phase,” a reaction to an overall violent society. He said that the solution to the current crisis in black America may lie in “a return to the kind of family values—the conventional nuclear family structure of gainfully employed parents—expressed in … Southern Baptist morality.”
Although Hooks told the New York Times that a “sense of duty and responsibility” to the NAACP compelled him to stay in office through the 1990s, the demands of the executive director position proved too great for him. In February of 1992, at the age of 67, he announced his resignation from the post, calling it “a killing job,” according to the Detroit Free Press. Hooks stated that he would serve out the 1992 year and predicted that a change in leadership would not jeopardize the NAACP’s stability: “We’ve been through some little stormy periods before,” he told the Free Press. “I think we’ll overcome it.”
Akron Beacon Journal, November 11, 1991.
Arizona Republic, September 14, 1991.
Baltimore Morning Sun, October 6, 1991.
Chicago Tribune, July 9, 1990.
Daily News (New York), July 31, 1977.
Detroit Free Press, February 17, 1992.
Ebony, November 1978; February 1981; August 1990.
Houston Post, July 9, 1991.
Jet, December 21, 1972; April 10, 1989; January 29, 1990; May 6, 1991.
Newsweek, May 30, 1983; June 6, 1983; July 23, 1990.
New York Times, December 10, 1988; July 10, 1989.
New York Times Magazine, July 15, 1979.
Time, November 22, 1976; May 30, 1983; June 6, 1983.
U.S. News and World Report, July 22, 1991.
Washington Post, November 8, 1976.