Benjamin Lawson Hooks
Benjamin Lawson Hooks
Benjamin Lawson Hooks
Attorney Benjamin Lawson Hooks (born 1925) was the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and served from 1972 to 1977 as the first African American commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. He led the historic prayer vigil in Washington DC in 1979 against the Mott anti-busing amendment which was eventually defeated in Congress.
Benjamin Lawson Hooks, the fifth of seven children, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1925 to Robert B. and Bessie Hooks. Hooks' family was relatively prosperous because, in 1907, his father and uncle established a successful photography business that was widely patronized by the Memphis African-American community. Because the society was so rigidly segregated along racial lines at that time, many establishments would not serve African Americans. Consequently, numerous African American-owned businesses were founded in the South to meet the needs of the African American populace. His grandmother, a musician who graduated from Berea College in Kentucky, was the second African American female college graduate in the nation. With such evidence of success and hard work as his personal examples, Hooks was encouraged to do well in his studies and prepare for higher education.
Following the Depression of 1929, changes occurred in the Hooks family's standard of living. With money so scarce during those years, African American clients could rarely afford the luxury of wedding pictures or family portraits, so business came to a virtual standstill. They were sad days indeed when the lights were turned out in the Hooks' home and when the bank foreclosed on the mortgage. Still, the family always had clothing and shelter, and no one ever went hungry. In the years after the Depression the family business revived and even several decades later, after his father's death, one of Hooks' brothers continued to maintain it. Perhaps because of the rigors of business life and social prominence in the African American community, Hooks' parents were careful to see that all of their children were conscientious about their appearance, attitude, and academic performance. Hooks learned discipline from his parents' teaching and example.
After completing high school, Hooks decided to remain in Memphis to study pre-law at LeMoyne College. He successfully completed that program and then headed for Italy, where he served in the army during World War II guarding Italian prisoners of war. He felt humiliated that these prisoners were allowed to eat in restaurants that were off limits to him, and that in Memphis, they would have more rights than he. The experience deepened his resolve to do something about the bigotry in the South. When he returned to the United States, he continued his studies at Howard University. From there he went to Chicago where he attended DePaul University Law School—since no law school in the South would admit him. Although he could have established a law practice in Chicago when he graduated in 1948, he chose to return to Memphis to aid in the struggle for civil rights in the South. From 1949 to 1965 he practiced law in Memphis, as one of the few African American lawyers in town.. He recalled in Jetmagazine "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.' 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 of civil rights progress."
In 1949, Hooks met a 24 year old teacher named Frances Dancy, whom he met at the Shelby County Fair. In 1952 they were married. Frances Hooks recalled in Ebony magazine that her husband was "good-looking, very quiet very intelligent. … He loved to go around to churches and that type of thing, so I started going with him. He was really a good catch."
For years Hooks resisted the call to the gospel ministry. His father had little respect for organized religion, and Hooks had no urge to go against his father's wishes. However, in 1955 he began to preach, and in 1956 he was ordained a Baptist minister. He joined Reverend Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He pastored a church in Memphis and one in Detroit at the same time. Hooks, a man of many talents, was not content with his two chosen professions. His interest in business prompted him to become a bank director, the co-founder of a life insurance company, and the founder of an unsuccessful fried-chicken franchise. After several attempts to be elected to public office as a Republican candidate, his political ambitions were realized when he was appointed to serve as a criminal judge in Shelby County (Memphis) in 1965. He thus became the first African American criminal court judge in Tennessee history. The following year he was elected to the same position.
No matter how busy he was with his varied activities, Hooks always found time to take part in civil rights protests. He became a life member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served on the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He was a pioneer in the NAACP-sponsored restaurant sit-ins and other boycotts that demonstrated the economic power as well as the anger of the African American community against the discrimination that was so pervasive at the time. In spite of his shyness he became a proficient orator whose combination of quick wit and homespun humor delighted audiences. He used this ability as the moderator of television shows called Conversations in Black and White and Forty Percent Speak (the percent of the African American population of Memphis) and as a panelist on the program What Is Your Faith?
Federal Communications Commissioner
Hooks was so often in the public eye that it is not surprising that Tennessee Senator Howard Baker submitted his name to President Richard M. Nixon for political appointment. While he was campaigning, Nixon had promised African American voters that he would see that they were treated fairly by the broadcast media. Thus, in 1972 when there was a vacancy on the seven-member board of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Hooks was named to fill it. Although Hooks was not the choice of the most articulate African American groups, including the Black Congressional Caucus, the great majority acquiesced gracefully to his appointment. Benjamin and Frances Hooks soon moved to Washington, D.C. Fortunately for Hooks, his wife matched him in energy, stamina and ambition. She often served as his assistant, secretary, advisor, and traveling companion, even though it meant that her own distinguished career as a teacher and guidance counselor was sacrificed. She told Ebony magazine, "He said he needed me to help him. Few husbands tell their wives that they need them after thirty years of marriage, so I gave it up and here I am. Right by his side."
The new position at the FCC gave Hooks a real opportunity to effectuate change in the roles of minorities in the entire broadcast industry. The FCC was responsible for granting licenses to television, radio, and cable television stations and for regulating long distance telephone, telegraph, and satellite communications systems. Hooks felt that his primary role was to bring a minority point of view to the commission. He stated that although he had been nominated by the president, he represented the interests of African Americans, the largest minority in the nation. Hooks was appalled to find that only three percent of those employed by the FCC were African American people, and they were generally in low-paying positions. He encouraged the commission to hire more African American workers at all levels. By the time that he left FCC, African Americans constituted about 11 percent of the employee population. Hooks made a concerted effort during his years as a commissioner to see that African Americans were fairly treated in news coverage and to urge public television stations to be more responsive to the needs of African American viewers by including historical and cultural programming directed toward them.
National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People
After serving on the FCC for five years, Hooks was asked to be the executive director of the NAACP, the organization which had formed the vanguard of civil rights advocacy from the beginning of the 20th century. Roy Wilkins, who had held the director's position since 1955, was retiring, and the NAACP board of directors wanted an able leader to take his place. They unanimously agreed that Hooks was the man. He resigned from the commission and officially began his directorship on August 1, 1977.
When Hooks took over the organization, the NAACP was in financial straits and membership had dwindled from half a million to just over 200, 000. Still the NAACP had local and regional offices throughout the country. He immediately directed his attention toward rebuilding the economic base of the association through a concentrated membership drive. He also advocated increased employment opportunities for minorities and the complete removal of United States businesses from South Africa. He told Ebony magazine "Black Americans are not defeated. … The civil rights movement is not dead. If anyone thinks 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 we are not going to demonstrate and protest … they had better roll up the sidewalks."
Hooks' tenure at the NAACP was fraught with bitter internal controversy. He was suspended by the chair of the NAACP's board, Margaret Bush Wilson, after she accused him of mismanagement. These charges were never proven. In fact he was backed by a majority of 64 member board and continued his tenure until his retirement in 1992.
Throughout his career, Hooks has been a staunch advocate for self-help among the African American community. He urges wealthy and middle class African Americans to give time and resources to those who are less fortunate. "Its time today … to bring it out of the closet. No longer can we provide polite, explicable reasons why Black America cannot do more for itself" he told the 1990 NAACP convention as quoted by the Chicago Tribune. "I am calling for a moratorium on excuses. I challenge black America today— all of us—to set aside our alibis."
After his retirement, Hooks served as Pastor of Middle Baptist Church and president of the National Civil Rights Museum, both in Memphis. He also taught at Fisk University.
There is no full-length biography of Hooks. However, articles and biographical sketches are included in Ebony Success Library (1973); Ebony magazine (June 1975); Jet (December 1972); and Broadcasting (April 1972). See also Minnie Finch, The NAACP, Its Fight for Justice (1981) and Warren D. James, NAACP, Triumphs of a Pressure Group, 1909-1980 (1980). □
Benjamin Hooks was an executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and is the first African American board member of the Federal Communications Commission.
Many role models
Benjamin Lawson Hooks, the fifth of seven children, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1925 to Robert B. and Bessie Hooks. Hooks's father and uncle ran a successful photography business. His grandmother, a musician who graduated from Berea College in Kentucky, was the second African American female college graduate in the nation. With such evidence of success and hard work as his personal examples, Hooks was encouraged to do well in his studies and to prepare for higher education.
Following the Depression of 1929, an economic slump in which millions of workers lost their jobs and homes, many banks failed, and many factories closed, the Hooks family's standard of living declined. With money so scarce during those years, African American clients could rarely afford wedding pictures or family portraits, therefore, business slowed down. Still, the family always had food, clothing, and shelter. Hooks's parents were careful to see that all of their children kept up their appearance, attitude, and academic performance.
Law student to civil rights worker
After high school, Hooks studied prelaw at LeMoyne College in Memphis. He successfully completed that program and then served in the army during World War II (1939–45) guarding Italian prisoners. He realized that in Memphis, these prisoners would have more rights than he did. When he left the army he continued his studies at Howard University and at DePaul University Law School in Chicago, Illinois—no law school in the South would admit him. He returned to the South to aid in the civil rights movement rather than establish a practice in Chicago. From 1949 to 1965 he was one of the few African Americans practicing law in Memphis. He recalled in Jet magazine, "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.' Usually it was just 'boy.'" In 1949, Hooks met a teacher named Frances Dancy. In 1952 the couple were married.
In 1956 Hooks became a Baptist minister, and he joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC; an organization that worked to gain equality for African Americans) of Reverend Martin Luther King (1929–1968). He also became a bank director and the cofounder of a life insurance company. After several attempts to be elected to public office, he was appointed to serve as a criminal judge in Shelby County, Memphis, in 1965. He thus became the first African American criminal court judge in the state of Tennessee. The following year he was elected to the same position.
Hooks took part in many civil rights protests. He served on the board of the SCLC and became a life member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was a leader of many NAACP-sponsored boycotts (protests in which organizers refuse to have dealings with a person, store, or organization in an attempt to get the object of the protest to change its policies or positions) and sit-ins in restaurants that refused to serve African Americans. In spite of his shyness Hooks became a skilled orator (public speaker) whose quick wit and sense of humor delighted audiences. He also served as the moderator (a person who presides over a meeting) of several television shows discussing issues of importance to African Americans.
Federal Communications Commissioner
Hooks was so often in the public eye that Tennessee senator Howard Baker (1925–) submitted his name to President Richard Nixon (1913–1994) for political appointment. Nixon had promised African American voters that they would be treated fairly by the broadcast media. Thus, in 1972 he named Hooks to fill an opening on the board of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Benjamin and Frances Hooks soon moved to Washington, D.C. Frances Hooks served as her husband's assistant, advisor, and traveling companion, giving up her own career as a teacher and guidance counselor. She told Ebony magazine, "He said he needed me to help him. Few husbands tell their wives that they need them after thirty years of marriage, so I gave it up and here I am. Right by his side."
The FCC regulated television and radio stations as well as long-distance telephone, telegraph, and satellite communications systems. Hooks felt that his primary role was to bring a minority point of view to the commission. After noticing that only 3 percent of FCC employees were African Americans, and they were generally in low-paying positions, he encouraged the commission to hire more African American workers at all levels. By the time he left the agency, African Americans made up about 11 percent of the employee population. Hooks also urged public television stations to be more responsive to the needs of African American viewers by treating them fairly in news coverage and including programming directed toward them.
In 1977 Roy Wilkins, who had been the executive director of the NAACP since 1955, retired. The NAACP board of directors wanted an able leader to take his place. They all agreed that Benjamin Hooks was the man. Hooks resigned from the FCC after five years and officially began his directorship on August 1, 1977.
When Hooks took over the organization, its membership had decreased from half a million to just over two hundred thousand. Hooks immediately directed his attention toward rebuilding the base of the association through a membership drive. He also spoke out on behalf of increased employment opportunities for minorities and the complete removal of U.S. businesses from South Africa. He told Ebony magazine, "Black Americans are not defeated.… The civil rights movement is not dead. If anyone thinks we are going to stop agitating, they had better think again." Hooks's leadership of the NAACP was marked by internal disputes. He was suspended by the chair of the NAACP's board, Margaret Bush Wilson (1919–), after she accused him of mismanagement. These charges were never proved. In fact, he was backed by a majority of the sixty-four-member board and continued in the job until retiring in 1993.
Throughout his career, Benjamin Hooks has stressed the idea of self-help among African Americans. He urges wealthy and middle-class African Americans to give time and resources to those who are less fortunate. "It's time today … to bring it out of the closet. No longer can we provide polite, explicable [easily explained] reasons why black America cannot do more for itself," he told the 1990 NAACP convention as quoted by the Chicago Tribune. "I challenge black America today—all of us—to set aside our alibis."
After his retirement, Hooks served as pastor of Middle Baptist Church and president of the National Civil Rights Museum, both in Memphis. He also taught at Memphis University. In July 1998, nearly fifty years after Hooks first began practicing law in Memphis, Tennessee governor Don Sundquist (1936–) asked Hooks, along with four others, to serve on a special state Supreme Court to oversee Tennessee's election and retention of appellate court judges. (Appellate courts consider appeals, or hearings to decide whether an error has been made and the decision of a lesser court should be reversed.)
For More Information
Editors of Ebony. 1,000 Successful Blacks. Chicago: Johnson Pub. Co., 1973.
Pickens, William. Bursting Bonds. Edited by William L. Andrews. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Hooks, Benjamin Lawson
HOOKS, BENJAMIN LAWSON
civil rights advocate Benjamin Lawson Hooks is best known as the forceful executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (naacp) from 1977 to 1993. Before he led the NAACP, Hooks made a virtual career out of shattering the United States' racial barriers. He was the first African American ever appointed to a Tennessee criminal court and the first African American named to the federal communications commission (FCC). Hooks has also achieved personal and professional success as an ordained minister, a television host and producer, a savings and loan administrator, a public speaker, and a fast-food executive.
Hooks was born January 31, 1925, in Memphis. As an African American living under jim crow laws, he experienced the daily indignities of southern segregation. His parents, Bessie Hooks and Robert B. Hooks, raised their seven children with high moral and academic standards. After high school, Hooks enrolled at LeMoyne College, in Memphis. His college career was interrupted by world war ii. Hooks was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 and rose to the rank of staff sergeant.
After his military service, Hooks attended Howard University, in Washington, D.C., and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1944. Hooks then traveled to Chicago to study law at DePaul University. Although Hooks wanted to enroll in a Tennessee law school, he could not do so because law schools in Tennessee refused to admit African Americans. Hooks graduated with a doctor of laws degree from DePaul in 1948. In 1949, he moved back to Memphis and started his own law practice. In 1952, he married Frances Dancy, and later, they had one child, Patricia.
"There will always be a need for the NAACP. Once we thought there would come a time when our work would be finished. But racism still exists and inequality is still built into this society."
—Benjamin L. Hooks
During the 1950s, Hooks became active in the growing national civil rights movement. Along with martin luther king, jr., Hooks served on the Board of Directors for the southern christian leadership conference. During this time, Hooks also became an ordained Baptist minister and accepted a call as pastor of the Middle Baptist Church, in Memphis. Adding to an already busy life, Hooks became vice president of a savings and loan association he helped found in Memphis in 1955.
In 1961, Hooks took over as assistant public defender of Shelby County. His role led to an appointment by Governor Frank G. Clement, of Tennessee, in 1965, to the Shelby County Criminal Court. With this appointment, Hooks became the first African American to serve as judge on the Tennessee criminal bench. In 1966, he was elected on his own to a full eight-year term. In the meantime, Hooks became minister of the Greater New Mount Moriah Baptist Church, in Detroit. He flew to Detroit twice a month to lead his congregation.
In 1968, Hooks resigned his criminal court judgeship to become president of Mahalia Jackson Chicken Systems, a fast-food franchise. In 1972, he was appointed by President richard m. nixon to become a member of the previously all-white FCC, the federal agency that licenses and regulates radio, television, satellite communications, telephones, and telegraph transmissions. This position allowed him to focus public attention on the image of African Americans in radio and television and to increase minority jobs in broadcasting.
In 1977, Hooks assumed the position with which he is most commonly identified: executive director of the NAACP. Following in the footsteps of the retiring roy wilkins, Hooks accepted the job because he deeply respected the NAACP and because he wanted to complete some of the unfinished business of the equal rights movement. A tireless worker, Hooks spent long days in the NAACP Baltimore headquarters performing what he called the "killing job."
During Hooks's tenure, the NAACP expressed concern over homelessness, drug abuse, inadequate education, and neighborhood safety. Hooks lamented the rise of an intractable urban underclass and warned that the promise of jobs and economic independence for African Americans must be met soon.
Some of Hooks's proudest accomplishments with the NAACP include his work in convincing Congress to impose sanctions against South Africa's system of apartheid, for legislation creating fair housing rights, and for a federally recognized holiday to celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hooks's achievements with the NAACP take on a special significance in view of the political conservatism that prevailed during his fifteen-year tenure as its head—a period when ronald
reagan and george h.w. bush were in the White House. Hooks vowed to keep the NAACP true to its progressive mission. In fact, under his leadership, the NAACP refused to endorse the nomination of African American clarence thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court because Thomas's views were too conservative.
By the time Hooks retired from the NAACP in 1993, its membership had grown to over five hundred thousand people in over twenty-two hundred chapters across the United States. Hooks was gratified by the results of a 1992 survey in which the NAACP earned an 86 percent approval rating among those polled. The organization has worked hard to counter criticism that it is mired in the past and out of touch with African–American youths.
When Hooks retired from the NAACP post in April 1993, the sixty-four members of the NAACP Board of Directors elected Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., as his successor. Hooks left the NAACP to embark on yet another career challenge—as a senior vice president at the Chapman Company, a minority controlled brokerage and investment banking firm with offices in seven cities.
The NAACP experienced turmoil in 1994 when a sexual harassment lawsuit was filed against Chavis. Chavis resigned and was replaced in 1996 by Kweisi Mfume who functioned as president and CEO. Throughout the controversy Hooks remained supportive of the NAACP.
Since his retirement from the NAACP, Hooks has remained active. In addition to the Spingarn Medal, which he was awarded in 1986, Hooks has been the recipient of numerous awards and more than 25 honorary degrees, and he has served as president of the National Civil Rights Museum. In 2001 the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change was established at the University of Memphis. The purpose of the Institute is to promote understanding of the civil rights movement and the quest for human rights. In the early 2000s Hooks continued to teach as a Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Political Science and History at the University of Memphis.
Bigelow, Barbara Carlisle, ed. 1992. Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research.
Kluger, Richard. 1976. Simple Justice. New York: Random House.
Schwartz, Bernard. 1986. Swann's Way: The School Busing Case and the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford University Press.