Compiled by Courier Staff
Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks was laid to rest this week after passing last week on Thursday, April 15 at his home in Memphis, Tennessee. Of his 85 years, nearly six decades was spent with his wife Frances.
Dr. Mary Ellen Strong, a nationally known business woman and former Milwaukeean was a longtime friend of Hooks and his wife Frances said. “Ben and Frances were an inseparable couple. They were an example of a model couple. My heart and condolences go out to Frances for her tremendous loss.”
Strong credited Hooks with using his appointment as the first African American Federal Communications Commissioner in 1972 by President Richard Nixon to include Blacks. When he came to the FCC only 3 percent of the FCC employees were African American and they were generally in low-paying positions, he encouraged the commission to hire more African American workers at all levels. By the time he left the agency, African Americans made up about 11 percent of the employee population.
Hooks was so often in the public eye that Tennessee senator Howard Baker (1925–) submitted his name to President Richard Nixon (1913– 1994) for political appointment. Nixon had promised African American voters that they would be treated fairly by the broadcast media. Thus, in 1972 he named Hooks to fill an opening on the board of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Benjamin and Frances Hooks soon moved to Washington, D.C. Frances Hooks served as her husband’s assistant, advisor, and traveling companion, giving up her own career as a teacher and guidance counselor. She told Ebony magazine, “He said he needed me to help him. Few husbands tell their wives that they need them after thirty years of marriage, so I gave it up and here I am. Right by his side.”
The FCC regulated television and radio stations as well as long-distance telephone, telegraph, and satellite communications systems. Hooks felt that his primary role was to bring a minority point of view to the commission. Hooks also urged public television stations to be more responsive to the needs of African American viewers by treating them fairly in news coverage and including programming directed toward them.
In fact it was at the beginning of his term with the FCC that the State of Wisconsin received its first Black owned radio station, WNOV AM Radio. Jerrel W. Jones, who is also the president and CEO of The Courier Publishing Company (the company that owns this newspaper, The Milwaukee Courier) was granted his radio license in January 1972. Hooks accomplished a lot in his five year tenure with the FCC, and he probably would have stayed longer, if another calling had not reached out to him.
In 1977 Roy Wilkins, who had been the executive director of the NAACP since 1955, retired. The NAACP board of directors wanted an able leader to take his place. They all agreed that Benjamin Hooks was the man. Hooks resigned from the FCC and officially began his directorship on August 1, 1977.
When Hooks took over the organization, its membership had decreased from half a million to just over two hundred thousand. Hooks immediately directed his attention toward rebuilding the base of the association through a membership drive. He also spoke out on behalf of increased employment opportunities for minorities and the complete removal of U.S. businesses from South Africa. He told Ebony magazine, “Black Americans are not defeated.… The civil rights movement is not dead. If anyone thinks we are going to stop agitating, they had better think again.” Hooks’s leadership of the NAACP was marked by internal disputes. He was suspended by the chair of the NAACP’s board, Margaret Bush Wilson (1919–), after she accused him of mismanagement. These charges were never proved. In fact, he was backed by a majority of the sixty-four-member board and continued in the job until retiring in 1993.
The current NAACP Ben Jealous released the following statement when the news of Hooks death was announced:
Yesterday, America lost a hero.
Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks was among the greatest Americans of the 20th century. A crusading lawyer who fought against oppression and a courageous, committed organizer who used communication to move mountains — Dr. Hooks lifted the Civil Rights movement, breaking down racial barriers.
But above all else, he was a believer — a believer in righteousness, justice and truth.
I’ll never forget being a young organizer, watching Dr. Hooks address the ‘93 March on Washington. He stood there in front of the Washington Monument in his blue blazer and starched white shirt. In my eyes, Dr. Hooks was Superman. For those of us who came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he was the most visible advocate for civil and human rights, the man who dared to push corporate America to opens doors to people who looked like us.
My thoughts and prayers are with the Hooks family in this tragic time. Will you take a moment to share your stories or sympathies with them? http://www.naacp.org/news/press/2010-04-15/index.htm
After retiring from his NAACP post, Hooks did not sit down for good. After all this man had worked too hard to earn his education and credentials for that.
Benjamin Hooks was born in Memphis, Tennessee. He was the fifth of seven children of Robert B. Hooks and Bessie White Hooks. His father was a photographer and owned a photography studio with his brother Henry known at the time as Hooks Brothers, and the family was fairly comfortable by the standards of Black people for the day. Still, he recalled that he had to wear hand-me-down clothes and that his mother had to be careful to make the dollars stretch to feed and care for the family.
Young Benjamin’s paternal grandmother, Julia Britton Hooks (1852–1942), graduated from Berea College in Kentucky in 1874 and was only the second American black woman to graduate from college. She was a musical prodigy who began playing piano publicly at age five, and at age 18 joined Berea’s faculty, teaching instrumental music 1870–72. Her sister, Dr. Mary E. Britton, also attended Berea, and became a physician in Lexington, Kentucky.
With such a family legacy, young Benjamin was inspired to study hard and prepare himself for college. In his youth, he had felt called to the Christian ministry. His father, however, did not approve and discouraged Benjamin from such a calling.
Hooks enrolled in LeMoyne- Owen College, in Memphis, Tennessee. There he undertook a pre-law course of study 1941–43. In his college years he became more acutely aware that he was one of a large number of Americans who were required to use segregated lunch counters, water fountains, and restrooms. “I wish I could tell you every time I was on the highway and couldn’t use a restroom,” he told U.S. News & World Report in an interview. “My bladder is messed up because of that. Stomach is messed up from eating cold sandwiches.”
After graduating in 1944 from Howard University, he joined the Army and had the job of guarding Italian prisoners of war. He found it humiliating that the prisoners were allowed to eat in restaurants from which he was barred. He was discharged from the Army after the end of the war with the rank of staff sergeant.
After the war he enrolled at the DePaul University College of Law in Chicago to study law. No law school in his native Tennessee would admit him. He graduated from DePaul in 1948 with his Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree.
Upon graduation Hooks immediately returned to his native Memphis. By this time he was thoroughly committed to breaking down the practices of racial segregation that existed in the United States. Fighting prejudice at every turn, he passed the Tennessee bar exam and set up his own law practice. “At that time you were insulted by law clerks, excluded from white bar associations and when I was in court, I was lucky to be called Ben,” he recalled in an interview with Jet magazine. “Usually it was just ‘boy.’ [But] the judges were always fair. The discrimination of those days has changed and, today, the South is ahead of the North in many respects in civil rights progress.”
By 1949 Hooks had earned a local reputation as one of the few black lawyers in Memphis. At the Shelby County fair, he met a 24-yearold science teacher by the name of Frances Dancy. They began to date, and soon became inseparable. They were married in Memphis in 1952. Mrs. Hooks recalled in Ebony magazine that her husband was “good looking, very quiet, very intelligent.” She added: “He loved to go around to churches and that type of thing, so I started going with him. He was really a good catch.”
Hooks was a friend and associate of Dr. T.R.M. Howard, the head of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership (RCNL), a leading civil rights organization in Mississippi. Hooks attended the RCNL’s annual conferences in the allblack town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi which often drew crowds of ten thousand or more. In 1954, only days before the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, he appeared on an RCNL-sponsored roundtable, along with Thurgood Marshall, and other Black Southern attorneys to formulate possible litigation strategies.
Hooks still felt the calling to the Christian ministry that he had felt in his youth. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1956 and began to preach regularly at the Greater Middle Baptist Church in Memphis, while continuing his busy law practice. The first person Rev. Hooks baptized when he became pastor was his father, who was not a member. He said, “My father was not a churchgoing man, but he was a Christian all the time. My father thought too many preachers he knew didn’t live up to the standard. But I told him that as far as I was concerned, a preacher was no better than any other Christian. We all are Christians first.”
So, it was only fitting that at the end of his law practicing, judicial positions, FCC Board Commissioner and NAACP executive director, he retires and goes back to serving as a pastor of Middle Baptist Church and president of the National Civil Rights Museum, both in his home town of Memphis.
Frances said in a Memphis television interview following his death, that she was prepared. “We had talked about it, he had a bad heart, and we both knew that the time was near. He realized that there was an end to living at some point, but he had enough faith in himself and in God above that he accepted the reality of it,” she said.
As for the future?
“I just ask that we would be remembered in prayers of those who knew us and keep us. Ask God to keep us in his care and keeping,” Frances Hooks said.