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Hooks, Benjamin L.

Hooks, Benjamin L.

January 31, 1925

The lawyer, minister, and civic leader Benjamin Lawson Hooks (also known as Benjamin Lawrence Hooks) was born in Memphis, Tennessee, where he attended public schools. Upon graduation from Booker T. Washington High School, Hooks pursued prelaw studies at Howard University, graduating in 1944. In 1948 he earned a juris doctor degree from De Paul University in Chicago and returned to Memphis to practice law, hoping to help end legal segregation.

In 1961 Hooks was appointed assistant public defender of Shelby County, Tennessee. Four years later, he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Shelby County Criminal Court (a position to which he was subsequently elected on the Republican ticket), becoming the first black criminal court judge in the state. In addition to practicing law, Hooks was active in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, serving as one of thirty-three members of the board of directors of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from its inception in 1957 until 1977. Hooks also cofounded and sat on the board of the Mutual Federal Savings and Loan Association from 1955 to 1969. He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1956 and became pastor of the Middle Baptist Church in Memphis, serving the church in that capacity for 45 years. 1972, President Richard M. Nixon nominated Hooks to the Federal Communications Commission, where became the first African American member and actively sought to improve employment and ownership opportunities of African Americans and worked for more positive depictions of blacks in the electronic media.

Hooks became executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1977 at a difficult moment in the organization's history. Since the 1960s, militant organizations had begun to eclipse the prominence of the NAACP, which had come under increasing attack for being too conservative. Viewed by its critics as a stodgy bastion of the middle class, the NAACP suffered a decline in membership and financial contributions. When Hooks replaced Roy Wilkins, who had served as executive director for twenty-two years, the organization was $1 million in debt and controlled by a faction-ridden board of directors.

As executive director, Hooks sought to revitalize the organization's finances and image, becoming more involved in such national issues as the environment, national health insurance, welfare, urban blight, and the criminal justice system. He announced his intention to forge new alliances with corporations, foundations, and businesses, in addition to strengthening the NAACP's traditional alliances with liberals, the government, and labor groups. Hooks led the fight for home rule in Washington, D.C., and was instrumental in securing the passage of important legislation such as the Humphrey-Hawkins bill of 1978, which mandated a dramatic lowering of the unemployment rate through the use of federal fiscal and monetary policy. Under his direction the NAACP also encouraged the withdrawal of U.S. businesses from South Africa.

In 1980 Hooks became the first African American to address both the Republican and Democratic national conventions. As executive director, Hooks upheld the NAACP's tradition of focusing on political activity, but he also tried to steer the organization toward helping African Americans on an everyday level through programs such as the Urban Assistance Relief Fund, which he founded in the wake of the 1980 Miami riot. In conjunction with his position at the NAACP, Hooks also served as chairman of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), a coalition of organizations devoted to civil rights issues.

In 1992 Hooks stepped down as executive director of the NAACP amid disputes between his supporters and those of board chairman William F. Gibson over the organization's leadership and direction. Many members expressed the view that the NAACP had continued to lose its effectiveness, although Hooks and his supporters maintained that it had upheld its heritage of civil rights activism. After leaving the NAACP, Hooks continued to serve as chairman of the LCCR until 1994, when he resumed his position as pastor of Middle Street Baptist Church on a full-time basis. In June 1992 Hooks was chosen to serve as the president of the board of directors of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

In 2000 the University of Memphis created the Benjamin Hooks Institute for the study of civil rights. The university also made Hooks' papers available online.

See also Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); Wilkins, Roy


Delaney, P. "Struggle to Rally Black America." New York Times Magazine, July 15, 1979.

Hooks, Benjamin. The March for Civil Rights: The Benjamin Hooks Story. Chicago: American Bar Association, 2003.

"New Voice of the NAACP." Interview. Newsweek, November 22, 1976.

louise p. maxwell (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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