On November 5, 2007, Dr. Benjamin Lawson Hooks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civil award. “The nation best remembers Benjamin Hooks as the leader of the NAACP,” said President George W. Bush. “For 15 years, Dr. Hooks was a calm yet forceful voice for fairness, opportunity, and personal responsibility. He never tired or faltered in demanding that our nation live up to its founding ideals of liberty and equality. His testimony had special power – for the words that he spoke and for the example that he set as a man of decency and rectitude.”
A native of Memphis, Hooks was born on January 31, 1925, the fifth of seven children of Robert and Bessie Hooks. His parents were both hard-working people, and his paternal grandmother, Julia Britton Hooks (1852-1942), a graduate from Berea College in Kentucky, was the second black woman in the United States to graduate from college. Hooks came from a family that valued education and encouraged civic participation in community affairs. As a youth, he was encouraged to do well in his studies, and his grandmother Julia Hooks, a stanch supporter of the NAACP, instilled in her grandson the need to challenge racial barriers that limited African Americans full participation in the affairs of the local community, state, and nation.
After high school, Hooks enrolled in pre-law at LeMoyne College in Memphis, but his time there was cut short when he was drafted to serve in the army during the Second World War. While stationed in Italy, he 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. This experience strengthened his resolve to battle bigotry.
After his war time service ended, Hooks, who used the benefits of the GI bill to pay his law school tuition, earned his J.D. degree in 1948 at DePaul University in Chicago. Although he was encouraged to remain in Chicago because of the segregationist practices in the south, Hooks promptly returned to Tennessee, a state that had no law school that would admit him, vowing to break down segregation. He passed the Tennessee Bar examination and opened his own law practice, confronting prejudice at every turn.
After joining the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Hooks felt called to ministry and was ordained a Baptist minister in 1956. He began preaching regularly at the Greater Middle Baptist Church in Memphis and became a pioneer in restaurant sit-ins and other boycotts sponsored by the NAACP. He entered state politics in 1954, making unsuccessful bids for the state legislature and juvenile court judge. Eleven years later, Tennessee governor Frank G. Clement appointed him to a vacancy on the Shelby County criminal court, making Hooks the first black criminal court judge in a court of record in Tennessee’s history. The following year he was elected to the position.
In 1972, Hooks became the first African American appointee to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). He addressed the lack of minority ownership of television and radio stations, the lack of minority employment in the broadcasting industry, and the image of blacks in the mass media. During his tenure, minority employment in broadcasting rose from three to fifteen percent nationally.
Hooks was elected Executive Director of the NAACP in 1976 and faced declining membership and organizational problems. “Black Americans are not defeated,” he told Ebony magazine 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.” Under his fifteen year leadership, the organization rebounded, adding several hundred thousand new members.
Early in 1990, Hooks and his family were among the targets of a wave of bombings against civil rights leaders. After visiting the White House to discuss the escalating tensions between races, he gained the government’s full support against racially motivated bomb attacks. Hooks was still critical of President George H. W. Bush’s administration’s lack of support for education and inaction on inner city poverty.
But he did not lay all the blame for America’s ills at the feet of its elected officials; Hooks was a staunch advocate of self-help. “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. “I’m calling for a moratorium on excuses. I challenge black America today, all of us, to set aside our alibis.”
For the rest of his life, Hooks continued to press the cause for civil rights by encouraging both the study of the American Civil Rights Movement and the identification of contemporary issues that affect minorities, the poor, and the disadvantaged. He died at age 85 on April 15, 2010, leaving the Hooks Institute to promote his commitment to social change.