Honoring Benjamin Hooks 

It is rare for a public figure to command veneration and loyalty from both sides of the political aisle and from every point on the ethnic spectrum, but such a figure is the Rev. Benjamin Hooks, who, it was announced this week, will be one of eight 2007 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Hooks kept up his tenure as pastor of Middle Baptist Church in Memphis throughout a lengthy service, beginning in 1976, as executive director of the NAACP nationally. He ranks up there with anyone else — including his friend Martin Luther King Jr. — as an exemplar of the civil rights struggle. His effectiveness with the NAACP was enhanced both by his legal brilliance and by a sunny disposition that allowed him to win friends (and disarm adversaries) across the usual social dividing lines.

A proud graduate of LeMoyne College, Hooks also is a veteran of combat service in World War II. On returning home, he got involved in local politics, but even doing so, he maintained friends in both parties. His evenhanded sense of justice would make him the first black Criminal Court judge in Tennessee history. And, while he always supported governmental action against discrimination and to offset the after-effects of segregation, he famously issued this challenge: "I'm calling for a moratorium on excuses. I challenge black America today — all of us — to set aside our alibis."

Hooks' career has been crowned in recent years by his service as president of the National Civil Rights Museum. He is a great man, and this week's great honor is entirely appropriate.

On Closing Mud Island

Mud Island River Park closes for the season this week, if anyone cares.

The most expensive and attractive park on the river closes during the month of November, when the temperatures are pleasant and the colors are changing. Those white tepees and campfires at the south end of the park that pop out on summer weekends might actually get some use on a cold autumn night.

But the park is an odd duck. It is part theme park for tourists and part public park for Memphians. It is expensive to operate and maintain, from the monorail to the museum and shops and restaurants. Admission to the park is free, even if food and soft drinks are pricey. Still, the demand from locals and tourists to keep it open year-round like Overton Park and Shelby Farms simply isn't there. So the Riverfront Development Corporation closes it, except for special events, until next spring.

This is the same outfit that wants to spend $29 million for a boat landing in Tom Lee Park and $6 million to fix up the cobblestones in the name of reconnecting Memphians to the river, attracting more tourists, and preserving a historic "treasure." The same things were said about Mud Island when it was built almost 30 years ago.

The fact is that "connecting with the river" is praised more in words than in practice. There are not that many people who want to passively look at cobblestones and barges and pretty views. Most people want to do something and watch something more exciting, like Joe Royer's "cyclocross" bike race along Mud Island's Greenbelt Park next weekend. Such events do more to connect Memphians to the river than expensive parks and monuments.

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