BLACK HISTORY: Benjamin L. Hooks, Civil Rights Leader, Dies at 85

Benjamin L. Hooks, who as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 16 years championed minorities in an increasingly conservative political era, died Thursday at his home in Memphis. He was 85.
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Benjamin L. Hooks in 2007, when he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

James A. Finley/Associated Press
Benjamin L. Hooks at a news conference in St. Louis in May 2006.
Leila McDowell, a spokeswoman for the N.A.A.C.P., said Mr. Hooks had died after a long illness.

While best known for his leadership role with the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights group, Mr. Hooks had a varied career. He was a Baptist minister who headed two churches. He was a lawyer and a criminal court judge — the first black to be appointed to the bench in his native Tennessee. He was the first of his race to be named to the five-member Federal Communications Commission.

“Most people do one or two things in their lifetimes,” said Julian Bond, a former head of the Atlanta branch of the N.A.A.C.P. “He’s just done an awful lot.”

Mr. Hooks was also a gifted orator, both in the pulpit and from a podium, mixing quotations from Shakespeare or Keats with the cadence and idioms of his native Mississippi Delta. “There is a beauty in it and a power in it,” Mr. Hooks once said of black preachers’ speaking style.

Mr. Hooks had his share of disappointments. Under his leadership, the N.A.A.C.P. found itself repeatedly fighting the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to preserve the gains minority groups had made in the 1960s and ’70s.

At the same time, the organization floundered under the weight of declining membership, shaky finances and an image of being outmoded and increasingly irrelevant. And his own business career — he owned fried-chicken franchises in Memphis for a time — was damaged by bankruptcy.

For some who have watched the N.A.A.C.P. over the years, Mr. Hooks came to symbolize one of its major problems: leaders from an older generation unwilling or unable to adapt to modern times and changed political circumstances.

Despite the setbacks, Mr. Hooks felt he had succeeded in advancing a just cause, to improve the lot of African Americans. “I have fought the good fight,” he said in his valedictory to the N.A.A.C.P. in 1992. “I have kept the faith.”

In 2007, President George W. Bush presented Mr. Hooks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.

Benjamin Lawson Hooks was born Jan. 31, 1925, in Memphis. With his father’s photography business providing a stable middle-class grounding, Mr. Hooks attended LeMoyne College in Memphis. After serving three years in the Army during World War II and rising to staff sergeant, Mr. Hooks attended law school at DePaul University in Chicago, graduating in 1948.

In 1951, while working as a lawyer in Memphis, he wed Frances Dancy, a high-spirited woman whose friends could not believe she was marrying such a straight arrow. When they dated, Mr. Hooks made her agree that if they went to a dance one night, the next date had to include a civic meeting or a church social.

Mr. Hooks earned the nickname “Jacob” as a teen-ager because of his keen interest in Bible studies. An ordained Baptist minister, he had long been the resident minister at two churches — one in Detroit and the other in Memphis. He insisted on preaching a sermon at some church — his own or someone else’s — every Sunday, regardless of what job he held.

President Richard M. Nixon appointed Mr. Hooks to the Federal Communications Commission in 1972. He then set out to expand the opportunities for minorities to obtain broadcast licenses, convincing the Small Business Administration to end restrictions on loans to broadcast and news businesses, and expanding the program of granting tax breaks to those who sold radio or television stations to minorities.

Yet while seeking to broaden opportunities for minorities in the broadcast industry, Mr. Hooks also sided with the corporate giant AT&T in its fight to shut out upstart companies like MCI from long distance telephone services.

When Jimmy Carter won the presidency in November 1976, Mr. Hooks was so widely thought to be in line to head the F.C.C. that some commissioners began calling him “Mr. Chairman.” But when asked by the N.A.A.C.P. board to take over the helm of the organization from an ailing Roy Wilkins, Mr. Hooks decided that that would be the more interesting and prestigious job.

Replacing Mr. Wilkins, a guiding figure of the civil rights movement, in July 1977, Mr. Hooks tried to steer the association through some of its most difficult years.

Twelve of his 16 years as executive director of the association coincided with the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, whose administrations were criticized by the N.A.A.C.P. as hostile to the political, economic and social agendas of civil rights groups.

Mr. Hooks also had to deal with an increasingly conservative political climate in which opposition to spending on social programs was growing. Many whites, too, were becoming openly antagonistic toward N.A.A.C.P. goals like school busing to achieve racial balance and preference programs for blacks in the areas of employment and college admissions.

“I’ve had the misfortune of serving eight years under Reagan and three under Bush,” Mr. Hooks said in 1992. “It makes a great deal of difference about your expectations. We’ve had to get rid of a lot of programs we had hoped for, so we could fight to save what we already had.”

After taking over from Mr. Wilkins, Mr. Hooks instituted several programs to appeal to younger blacks, including the Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics, known as Act-So, an annual talent competition that involves more than 150,000 teen-agers throughout the country.

In a sharp departure from past N.A.A.C.P. policies, he sought to forge closer ties with American corporations. He testified before Congress on behalf of measures to limit imports, which he saw as a threat to jobs held by blacks, and he managed to increase the amount of money raised by the N.A.A.C.P. from corporate donors, to $3.7 million in 1993 from $696,000 in 1978.

Despite his achievements, many friends and detractors alike say that Mr. Hooks only held the line, failing to modernize and build the N.A.A.C.P. into a more effective organization that could better cope with the increasingly contentious environment that surrounded civil rights issues in the 1980s and ’90s.

As a manager who hated to delegate tasks, Mr. Hooks resisted attempts, until his final two years in office, to hire a strong deputy to help with administration. Distrustful of modern research techniques like polling and focus groups, Mr. Hooks was widely seen as failing to come up with a strategy to make the N.A.A.C.P. more relevant to the large numbers of younger, college-educated blacks who had attained middle-class status in the 1970s and ’80s.

As a result, membership stagnated at around 400,000, revenue from memberships declined, and the average age of members increased.

“Ben lacked a sense of understanding of what his marketplace was, what he was selling, or how you sell in this economy,” said George Carter, who served as Mr. Hooks’ deputy for two years. “He had very little sense that there are ways to sell yourself and get high yields.”

Reflecting the social conservatism of his black Baptist roots, Mr. Hooks for years resisted entreaties to have the N.A.A.C.P. take a strong position on preventing the spread of AIDS, a growing threat in the inner cities. In was not until the basketball star Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he was infected with the AIDS virus that Mr. Hooks relented and allowed the organization to support programs like condom distribution in schools and health clinics.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hooks was battling his board over who would run the organization’s day-to-day operations. In 1978, five months after taking the job, Mr. Hooks threatened to quit when the board refused to approve his hiring of a chief aide and refused to pay the travel expenses of his wife, who frequently accompanied him.

In 1983, Mr. Hooks was suspended by the board’s chairwoman, Margaret Bush Wilson, a lawyer from St. Louis, who asserted that Mr. Hooks was mismanaging the organization. Mr. Hooks emerged the victor in the power struggle when the board voted to reinstate him and to strip Ms. Wilson of her powers.

But in 1992, Mr. Hooks again became embroiled in a fight with the board, this time under the chairmanship of William Gibson, a dentist from South Carolina, over the day-to-day running of the organization. When the board backed Mr. Gibson, Mr. Hooks resigned.

He is survived by his wife, Frances, and a daughter, Patricia Gray.

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