Benjamin Hooks’ sermons, mixing quotations from Shakespeare and Keats with the cadence of his native Mississippi Delta, could move listeners to tears. But the first time Hooks spoke publicly, he was the one crying. Hooks, the salutatorian of his eighth-grade class at Porter Elementary School in Memphis, broke down midway through his address to a school assembly. “I could preach to the chickens and cats and dogs,” he recalled years later. “When it comes to other folks, I just could not do it.”
Hooks, who died in Memphis last week at 85, so thoroughly conquered his fear of public speaking that as an adult “he insisted on preaching a sermon at some church—his own or someone else’s—every Sunday,” said The New York Times. As the pastor of two Baptist churches, in Memphis and Detroit, he said, “My life was built around being in those pulpits on Sunday.” But the church was only one of Hooks’ vocations. A practicing lawyer, he when on to achieve several “firsts” for an African-American before taking charge of the venerable civil-rights group the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, rebuilding its finances and membership as it was starting to fade into irrelevance.
Born in Memphis, Hooks grew up in a middle-class home, his father’s photography business providing a comfortable living. As a child, he aspired to work at the nearby Peabody Hotel, said the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, “because of the access it would provide to a world of privilege and wealth that little Benny Hooks could only imagine.” But it was his military service during World War II, when he was responsible for guarding Italian prisoners of war, that most altered the course of his life. Outraged that the prisoners were allowed to eat in “Whites Only” restaurants from which he himself was barred, he resolved to fight discrimination at home when the war ended. After his return to the U.S., he earned a law degree from DePaul University in Chicago and then opened a law office in Memphis. In 1965, he was appointed to the Tennessee Criminal Court, becoming the South’s first black judge since Reconstruction.
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He achieved another first in 1972, when President Richard Nixon appointed him to the Federal Communications Commission, where he worked to expand black ownership of television and radio stations. “Minority employment in the broadcast industry grew from 3 percent to 15 percent during his five-year tenure,” said the Associated Press. In 1977, he stepped down from the FCC to become executive director of the NAACP, which at the time was $1 million in debt and down to 200,000 members from a half-million a decade earlier. He restored the group to solvency by increasing corporate donations and rebuilt membership to 400,000. But after repeated clashes with the NAACP board over his management style—he was loath to delegate—he stepped down in 1992. In retirement, he served as chairman of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.
Hooks is survived by a daughter, two grandsons, and his wife, Frances, who recalled after his death that their rare marital spats always ended almost before they began. “He would tell me to sit down and let’s talk about it,” Frances said. “He was just so kind and gentle.”
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