Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1925, Benjamin Hooks became a lawyer and minister who was active in the Civil Rights Movement. He was Tennessee's first African-American criminal judge, as well as the first African-American commissioner of the FCC. From 1977 until 1993, Hooks headed the NAACP. He received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. In 2010, at the age of 85, he died in Memphis.
Benjamin Lawson Hooks was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on January 31, 1925. With a grandmother who was the second African-American woman to get a college degree in the United States, he grew up understanding the importance of education. After graduating from his segregated high school, Benjamin Hooks attended LeMoyne College, then transferred to Howard University.
During World War II, Hooks left his studies behind to join the U.S. Army. While working as a guard, he saw that his Italian prisoners were able to eat in restaurants that refused to admit black service members, a fact that made him determined to work for desegregation. After being discharged, he went to DePaul University's law school in Chicago, graduating in 1948.
Civil Rights Work
Hooks set up shop as a lawyer in his hometown of Memphis, where members of the legal establishment treated him with disdain. Still determined to fight against segregation, he also got involved with sit-ins and boycotts. He became a Baptist minister in 1956, and soon joined the executive board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization led by Martin Luther King Jr.
After becoming a public defender for Tennessee's Shelby County in 1961, Hooks represented defendants in civil rights cases. The work meant he had to face angry opponents of the Civil Rights Movement; Hooks and other civil rights lawyers were driven out of one town by shotgun-wielding sheriffs.
From Judge to Commissioner
In 1965, the changes the Civil Rights Movement had wrought led to a big shift in Hooks's own life: He was appointed to be a criminal judge, a first for an African American in Tennessee. He was elected for a full judicial term the next year. During this time, he continued to minister at two churches, one in Memphis, the other in Detroit.
Hooks left the bench in 1968 to be the president of Mahalia Jackson Chicken Systems, a company that was owned and operated by African Americans. Unfortunately, the business went under a few years later. He was then selected by President Richard Nixon to join the Federal Communications Commission in 1972, making him the first African-American commissioner. While with the FCC, Hooks supported initiatives that helped build minority ownership of television and radio stations.
Hooks left the FCC in order to become executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1977. During his time with the NAACP, he improved the organization's finances and increased its membership rolls. He also successfully worked for improved job opportunities for minorities and the creation of a holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr.
However, Hooks—who commented in 1992 that he "had the misfortune of serving eight years under Reagan and three under Bush"—had to deal with growing opposition to affirmative action, as well as declining government support for social programs. He was also criticized for not ensuring that the NAACP kept up with changing needs in the African-American community. In 1993, he stepped down from his position.
At the age of 85, Hooks died in Memphis on April 15, 2010. He was survived by his wife, Frances, and their daughter, Patricia Gray. Before his death, he had received many accolades, such as the NAACP's Spingarn Medal, awarded in 1986, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, given by President George W. Bush in 2007.
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