As news of Benjamin L. Hooks’ death riveted the American public, mourning turned to reflective celebration of a man who helped revolutionize the struggle for minority equality in economics, media and politics.
This week, Hooks’ family, friends and colleagues honored his life and legacy at Greater Middle Baptist Church and Temple of Deliverance COGIC, both in Memphis, Tenn.
On April 15, the former executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the first African American named to the Federal Communications Commission died after a long illness. He was 85.
Hooks was the fifth of seven children, Hooks was born in 1925 to the late Robert B. and Bessie Hooks.
Throughout his five-decade career, Hooks balanced a flurry of responsibilities and leadership roles, most notably his position as executive director of the NAACP from 1977 to1992. The Memphis-born civil rights icon also led two Baptist churches, was a criminal court judge and a practicing attorney. Before entering the public eye, he owned a chain of fried chicken restaurants in Memphis.
Despite facing a number of injustices spurred by racism, Hooks’ career reached extraordinary strata early on. After graduating from LeMoyne-Owen College and rising to staff sergeant during World War II, he attended law school at DePaul University in Chicago and graduated in 1948. According to the University of Memphis’ Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, no law school in Tennessee would admit the aspiring attorney.
Following graduation, Hooks returned to Memphis armed to improve the economic and social capacities of African Americans. By 1949, Hooks had opened his own practice and became known as one of the few Black lawyers in Tennessee. Three years later, he married 24-year-old Frances Dancy, a science teacher he’d met at the Shelby County fair.
Although his career was thriving, Hooks never lost his boyhood reverence for the Black church. In 1956, he was ordained and began preaching at the Greater Middle Baptist Church while juggling his work as an attorney.
John Wesley, Hooks’ former deputy director of public relations and a longtime confidante, said the Baptist preacher was happiest when fulfilling what he believed was a God-given mission.
“In all that he did, what was most important to him was his work ethic and his ministry,” said Wesley. “He loved to preach. That was his thing.”
However, the flourishing leader’s rise to prominence was not without disappointment. His restaurant chain went bankrupt and he ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature in the mid-1950s and for juvenile court judge in 1959 and 1963.
However, the young lawyer garnered the esteem of the Black community and some liberal Whites, and Gov. Frank G. Clement appointed Hooks to a vacant seat in the Shelby County criminal court. The position made him the first African-American criminal court judge in Tennessee.
Meanwhile, Hooks had produced and hosted local TV shows and was a staunch supporter of several Republican candidates. In 1972, former President Richard Nixon appointed Hooks to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) five-member board, making him the first Black person to earn this distinction.
“During his five-year tenure at the FCC in the early 1970s, Mr. Hooks worked tirelessly to expand opportunities for minorities and the poor, communities that had long been without a strong voice at the agency or in the media landscape,” said Julius Genachowski, current FCC chairman, in a statement sent to the AFRO.
“Just last year, Mr. Hooks urged the FCC to remember that broadband access and adoption are essential to full civic participation in our society. Mr. Hooks’ legacy is a reminder there is still more that the FCC must do to realize his vision of a communications landscape that represents the vibrant diversity of America.”
The NAACP’s 64-member board of directors elected Hooks executive director of the storied organization in 1977. Mired by declining membership and budget shortfalls, the civil rights organization had dwindled to 200,000 members by the mid-1970s, a drop from its previous 500,000-strong flock. Over the next 16 years, Hooks helped replenish membership numbers and involved the organization in foreign relations and domestic policy affairs.
NAACP New York State Conference President Hazel N. Dukes, who served alongside Hooks, celebrated his life and his impact.
“Dr. Hooks was a man who broke down racial barriers throughout his entire life, and dedicated his personal and professional life to the struggle for all people of color,” said Dukes in a statement. “Without we would not have the generation of leaders we have today Chairman Roslyn Brock and President and CEO Jealous.”
The current NAACP leader also recognized his forerunner’s prominence, and lauded Hooks’ ability to juggle an array of seemingly disparate obligations.
“He was a courageous and committed preacher of the Word who, as chairman of the Leadership Conference for Civil Rights, insisted that our nation acknowledge and respect the dignity of all Americans regardless of race and ethnicity, as well as gender and sexual orientation,” said Jealous. “He was simply the greatest living person to have served as Executive Director and CEO of the NAACP. We will miss him dearly.”
At the NAACP’s centennial convention in New York last July, Hooks’ gave a powerful speech honoring the organization’s landmark accomplishments and uttered words that captured the essence of his own climb to distinction:
“Let’s fight on until justice runs down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream. Let’s fight on until there is no down-sizing, until there is no glass ceiling,” Hooks said. “Let’s fight on until God shall gather the four winds of heaven; until the angel shall plant one foot on the sea and the other on dry land and declare that the time that has been will be no more. Fight on, until the lion shall lie down with the lamb. Fight on, until justice, righteousness, hopes equality and opportunity is the birthright of all Americans.”
AFRO Baltimore Bureau Chief Tiffany Ginyard and AFRO Staff Writer Gregory Dale contributed to this report.