Jurist, lawyer, fabled minister, and icon of the civil rights movement, the Rev. Benjamin Hooks was as universally beloved a figure, both in Memphis and in the world at large, as it was possible to be. He was that rare figure revered by whites and blacks alike and claimed by both major political parties.
Hooks' death early Thursday morning at the age of 85 creates an absence that no other single figure can fill. And beyond his massive body of achievements was a personal good will, even a beatitude, that will crown his legacy.
Rev. Hooks, who pastored the Greater Middle Baptist Church in Southeast Memphis, straddled the Memphis scene and the world stage and managed always to be a commanding figure in each. In 2007, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.
A native of Memphis, Hooks attended Booker T. Washington High School and LeMoyne College. During World War II, he served with the 92nd Infantry Division in Italy. After the war he attended Howard University in Washington, and after receiving a law degree from DePaul University in Chicago in 1948, began practicing law in Memphis. Ultimately, after being appointed a Criminal Court judge by then Governor Frank Clement in 1965, he won election to a full term in 1966.
Meanwhile he had become a central figure in desegregation efforts -- again, both locally and nationally. In the aftermath of the epochal 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision banning school desegregation, Hooks joined forces with the NAACP's Thurgood Marshall to pursue further advances, and he became an associate of Dr. Martin Luther King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In 1972, Hooks was appointed to the Federal Communications Commission by President Richard Nixon, becoming its first African-American member. He relinquished that post in 1977 to become executive director of the NAACP, heading that organization until 1992. He was awarded the NAACP's highest honor, the Spingarn Award, in 1986.
Active at various times in both the Republican and Democratic parties, Hooks was invited to address both national party conventions in 1980. He was the acknowledged patriarch, not only of other members of the extended Hooks family who achieved local office but of several generations of African Americans in politics.
Any statewide politician seeking to hold office in Tennessee knew that a courtesy call on Rev. Hooks was a de rigueur matter. Simply put, Benjamin Hooks was the great conciliator, whose influence derived not primarily from his numerous offices and honors but from his position of principled and compassionate moral leadership.
Rev. Hooks is survived by his wife Frances, who in 1977 was awarded, jointly with him, the Brotherhood Award by the Memphis Round Table of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and by their daughter, Patricia Grey.
Editor's Note: In April 2008, Dr. Hooks sat down with Memphis magazine and reminisced about the civil rights era. It's wonderful reading. Scroll down to his picture.
OTHERS REMEMBER DR. HOOKS:
9th District Rep. Steve Cohen on the floor of Congress:
The Memphis City Council:
Today Memphis and this nation suffered a true loss with the untimely death of the Honorable Dr. Benjamin Hooks. Chairman Harold Collins said, “Dr. Hooks was one of Memphis’ finest treasures and we are deeply saddened by his passing.” In 1998 Dr. Hooks was awarded the Memphis city Council Humanitarian Award in honor of his life of courageous leadership, authentic public service and commitment to our city, our nation and people. In 2004 the Memphis city council named the new main library at 3030 Poplar the Dr. Benjamin Lawson Hooks Public Library to honor his lifetime of contributions to our city. The Memphis city council desires to express its sincere condolences to Dr. Hooks’ wife, Frances, and to our former colleagues, Michael and Janet Hooks, and to the entire Hooks family.
Interim Shelby County Mayor Joe Ford:
Dr. Hooks was a man who exemplified the meaning of self-sacrifice and working for the greater good of all people. Shelby County’s advancement in race relations and civil rights are largely attributed to Dr. Hooks. He will forever be remembered as one who diligently sought to elevate the thinking of the inward man to move beyond outward differences and seek mutual love, respect and understanding.
Dr. Hooks gave us hope. When he spoke we knew that the powers that be were listening. Those of us living in the Memphis and Shelby County Community are blessed to have been able to share the same space with such a great man. We have lost a friend to justice.
U.S. Senator Bob Corker on the floor of the Senate:
Mr. President, I rise today to honor an exceptional Tennessean and a pioneer in the civil rights movement. Mr. President, Benjamin Hooks was born in Memphis, TN in 1925, the fifth of seven children by Robert and Bessie Hooks. He grew up in a loving family that taught him to succeed in both education and life. After high school Dr. Hooks began his higher education by taking pre-law classes at LeMoyne College in Memphis. Prior to finishing his degree he was drafted into the Army and honorably served our country in World War II. When he returned home he went on to graduate school at Howard University and afterwards received his law degree from DePaul University in Chicago.
Mr. President, as Dr. Hooks went through life and excelled in his various endeavors there was one experience that greatly molded the future direction of his life – being born into and growing up in the scourge of racial segregation. After Dr. Hooks graduated college he returned home and vowed to do his part to end racial segregation. Initially, he fought the fight by becoming one of the first African American lawyers in Tennessee. It was during this time he met and married Ms. Frances Dancy. Frances was a school teacher and guidance counselor. Eventually her career took a different path and she became her husband’s assistant, advisor, and traveling companion. They have one daughter together - Patricia Hooks Gray.
As Dr. Hooks continued to practice law, he was called to fight for civil rights from another forum – the ministry. In 1956 he was ordained a Baptist minister and began to preach regularly at the Middle Baptist Church in Memphis, TN. It was there he joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and became a pioneer in the NAACP sponsored restaurant sit ins and other boycotts. Through these efforts he became a respected voice in the community and the state and in 1965 Governor Frank Clement appointed him to become the first African American criminal court judge in Tennessee history.
His efforts as a preacher, judge, and civil rights pioneer eventually led Hooks to Washington DC to become the first African American appointee to the FCC. There he continued the civil rights fight by addressing numerous minority representation issues in the communications industry.
In 1976 he was elected as the Executive Director of the NAACP, there he led that organization for more than 15 years. As the Director he helped to increase membership and fundraising efforts as well as plan for the organizations future for 17 years. He also broadened the scope of the NAACP by exploring national issues such as energy, environment, the criminal justice system, welfare and national health insurance.Throughout his work as a civil rights advocate he has received numerous awards, including the Humanitarian Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum. The University of Memphis created the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change honoring Benjamin Hooks. The Hooks Institute works to advance the understanding of the civil rights movement through teaching, research and community programs that put an emphasis on social movements, race relations, strong communities, public education, effective public participation, and social and economic justice.
On Monday, Mr. President, I am pleased that Dr. Hooks will receive one more honor and one of the highest civilian awards - the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This medal is given to individuals who have made an especially meritorious contribution to society and Dr. Hooks is a living example of the type of person. His life is an example that even while facing adversity - through hard work you can accomplish revolutionary change. His legacy will not only continue in our state but also throughout our nation so it is only fitting that, through this award, he once again joins the ranks of other civil rights pioneers such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence M. Mitchell, Leon Howard Sullivan, and Roy Wilkins. Mr. President, it is an honor and a privilege to serve in the United States Senate on behalf of Tennesseans, like Dr. Hooks, who have exemplified great courage that has not only positively affected our state but our country as well.
7th District U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn:
Benjamin Hooks was one of Tennessee’s great heroes and we live in a better world because of his achievements. Dr. Hooks was a visionary, a courageous champion of civil rights and education, and an instinctive leader; we are all richer for his life and deeply mourn his passing.
District Attorney General Bill Gibbons:
Benjamin Hooks was more than a leader. He was a person of much courage and one of the great communicators of our time. Dr. Hooks had a tremendous positive impact on our nation and the Memphis community. On a personal level, I will always be grateful for his kindness and friendship over the years. I will miss him. My thoughts and prayers are with Dr. Hooks’ wife, Frances, and his entire family.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton:
Memphis is saddened today by the loss of one of the great citizen-servants in our country’s history, Reverend Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks.š Our hearts and prayers are extended to his lovely wife Frances and the entire family during this difficult time.
Tragically, American ideals have often been alien to America’s reality.
In the same way that the Founding Fathers helped to shape the ideals for a new nation, Benjamin Hooks was among a rarefied class of Civil Rights leaders whose work in championing the cause of basic freedom and refining the very definition of opportunity transformed American life.
There are few if any major civil rights advances over the last 50 years that do not carry his fingerprint, whether through direct participation or indirect influence.š His calling as a ministry, his training as a lawyer, and his personal association with the plight of the oppressed worked to make Benjamin Hooks one of the most prolific and engaged fighters for the common man and woman we’ve seen in this century.
Dr. Hook’s life was itself an unfolding story of how obstacles can not stand against the steady flow of determined progress.š A World War II veteran, he broke barriers and blazed trails throughout his life including his time as a member of the Tennessee Criminal Court and as the first black Commissioner of the FCC.
In his widely-regarded role as the Executive Director of the NAACP, Dr. Hooks inherited fledging membership and donor support, a challenge he meet squarely by setting a vision for the organization and rebuilding it to a position of strength and greater influence.š In the most relevant way, Dr. Hooks helped to further cultivate and refine the NAACP’s image as an organizational agent for change by keeping it on the forefront <,p>Dr. Hooks was well aware of the need to continue the work in educating emerging generations of social advocates.š Dr. Hooks’ work in shaping and setting the vision of the Benjamin Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis and his efforts as a longstanding partner with the National Civil Rights Museum underscored his efforts in passing on the history and a sense of responsibility to young people.
As much as Dr. Hooks and his legacy belonged to the world, Memphis will forever be grateful to say he was one of our very own.š His joy was our joy; his successes emboldened us to dream.š This internationally-regarded Civil Rights pioneer was our friend.
We will miss him.
State Senator Ophelia Ford:
I have many fond memories of the Rev. Ben Hooks, as he was very close to my father and mother, the late N.J. and Vera Ford. My fondest memory of Rev. Hooks would have to be when he honored my family by giving the eulogy at my father’s funeral. He left my family and me with wonderful words of wisdom as we lost the family patriarch. I always looked forward to seeing Rev. Hooks at social events and community functions. His presence will surely be missed not only in Memphis, but across the nation.
U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander"
Tennessee has lost one of its most distinguished citizens and our family has lost a good and close friend. Ben Hooks was a pioneer, preacher, storyteller, conciliator and visionary. We will miss him greatly.
Germantown Democratic Club
It is with great sorrow we learned this morning of the passing of Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks. A native Memphian, Dr. Hooks' renowned legacy draws from his roots in our community. His education, dedication to his faith, and leadership skills empowered him throughout his life as a minister, a lawyer, Executive Director of the NAACP, and a member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to advocate for civil rights and on behalf of the poor.
We join our community and the world in expressing our most sincere condolences to his family on the loss of this true Memphis legend.