Today marks the fourth anniversary of Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks’ passing. He was a staple within the Memphis community and strong advocate for racial, social, and economic justice.
Dr. Hooks was the first African-American criminal court judge in the South subsequent to the Reconstruction Era and the first African-American appointee for the Federal Communications Commission. He led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for 15 years. He was also a Baptist minister, practicing attorney, and respected orator, among several other titles.
During the height of the civil rights movement, he openly antagonized segregation, helped orchestrate protests and lunch counter sit-ins, and promoted the importance of education.
His great-nephew Michael Hooks, Jr. is among the people who drew inspiration from the elder Hooks' desire to positively impact the community.
“As I’ve gotten older, I appreciate more that I had role models like him and his peers and his contemporaries to look up to,” Michael said. “Our younger generation doesn’t quite have that, and I had it naturally. I got a chance to be in the room with the Morgan Freemans, and [Nelson] Mandelas, and [Bill] Clintons, and I could go on and on. Just being in the room gives you a sense of encouragement that turns into pride and motivation. And he carried himself with such humility and dignity in situations. Being around him gave me a guide on how to act. That’s what I remember the most. I had a real life example that was right there almost every Sunday at dinner, a phone call away, and as he got older called me to help him. Just spending that time around him motivates us to give that kind of time back to the younger generation.”
In 1996, The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, a public policy research center that seeks to teach, study, and promote civil rights and social change, was established by Hooks and the Department of Political Science and College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Memphis. The Institute is located within the U of M’s Scates Hall.
The city also has the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library and the Benjamin L. Hooks Job Corps Center, a facility that provides teens and young adults with free career and academic training to help them succeed in today’s workforce. Both establishments are named in honor of the civil rights icon.
Although Hooks’ legacy lives on, Michael is worried about the younger generation failing to truly comprehend and appreciate the importance of contributions made by Hooks and others, which helped improve the circumstances of minorities significantly. He thinks entities like the Hooks Institute can help educate youth and young adults on the struggles and triumphs of their predecessors and how they can utilize the wisdom of past activists to face modern-day dilemmas.
“When you ask the average 20-year-old who Ben Hooks was, they’re not going to be able to tell you,” Michael said. “But the purpose that Ben Hooks fought for and lived for still exists today, and if [the younger] generation doesn’t pick it up, it’s going to be lost. Folks tend to think that it’s all about the 1960s civil rights movement, and I think that we need to encourage young folks to understand that that’s just a template … All that is, is a process. Whatever injustice exists today, take that same template and the process that our forefathers participated in and implement it in something you believe in. Our voting participation is declining, our high school graduation rates are declining, and our college preparedness is declining, at least locally. We have a lot of issues that we need young folks to take the same kind of process and reinvest with the current-day issues. And I think the Ben Hooks Institute would be a platform to do that and take those issues up in a positive and peaceful way.”
Dr. Hooks succumbed to heart failure on April 15th, 2010 in Memphis. He was 85 years old.
To read more about Dr. Hooks and The Hooks Institute’s upcoming gala, "Join Hands for Change: The Civil Rights Movement's Influence on Music, Fashion and Culture" on Saturday, April 26th, check out my article in this week’s issue of the Memphis Flyer.