Benjamin Lawson Hooks
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.
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.
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