Benjamin L. Hooks, 85

Former NAACP leader Benjamin L. Hooks dies at 85

The longtime director of the NAACP died Thursday at his home in Tennessee. He was 85.
By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 16, 2010

Benjamin L. Hooks, 85, a lawyer and Baptist minister who led lunch-counter sit-in demonstrations during the 1960s and was the longtime head of the NAACP as it struggled to find its way in the post-civil rights era, died April 15 at his home in Memphis. The cause of death was not reported.

Tennessee-born Rev. Hooks liked to call himself a "poor little ol' country preacher" but was considered a charismatic orator with a gift for evoking the daily humiliations of life under segregation.

"I wish I could tell you every time I was on the highway and couldn't use a restroom," he said. "My bladder is messed up because of that. Stomach is messed up from eating cold sandwiches. So I can't tell you how I feel about the question, 'Has integration worked?' All these intellectual superegoists sit around trying to pinpoint where it hasn't. But I have to begin at the fundamental issue that I can drive from Houston to my home in Memphis and stop for a hamburger."

In a career spanning six decades, Rev. Hooks achieved many milestones. In 1965, he became the first black judge to sit on the bench of a Tennessee state court since Reconstruction. In 1972, he became the first black member of the Federal Communications Commission, where he championed minority ownership of television and radio stations.

In addition, Rev. Hooks was a minister at two Baptist churches, in Memphis and Detroit, and sat on the board of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He also dabbled in business, serving a short stint as president of Mahalia Jackson Chicken Systems, a fast-food fried-chicken chain that folded after two years.

His legacy rode firmly on his long tenure at the NAACP, which he guided through an extended period of organizational turmoil and political challenges from the highest levels of government.

In 1977, he succeeded another old-guard civil rights leader, Roy Wilkins, as executive director. During the next 16 years, Rev. Hooks presided over a venerable civil rights group that sought to define itself after playing a central role in the civil rights victories of the 1960s.

Rev. Hooks said the NACCP battled two presidential administrations -- those of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush -- which he called hostile to the association's goals on affirmative action, increased spending on social programs and school integration through busing. "Just to hold the fort is a victory now," he said in 1981.

Rev. Hooks said he was no less frustrated by the time he stepped down as executive director, but he did claim many gains. He said he boosted the NAACP's declining membership rolls and succeeded in efforts to raise money and start programs for young people. He successfully lobbied for the King holiday and several civil rights, fair housing and voting rights bills.

He sought to expand employment opportunities by signing dozens of "Fair Share" agreements with companies such as Kmart, which agreed to hire black employees and buy from black employers.

"His legacy was really enforcing civil rights victories on corporate America," said Benjamin Jealous, NAACP president, "saying to corporate leaders, 'segregation is illegal but it still exists inside your company, and we have to find a way to work together to change that.' "

Inside the organization, his term was marked by periodic but bitter arguments with board members. In 1983, board chairwoman Margaret Bush Wilson accused Rev. Hooks of mismanagement after a drop of 25 percent in membership rolls and unilaterally suspended him. Within days, the rest of the NAACP board reversed Wilson's decision and increasingly sidelined her responsibilities, in essence throwing its confidence behind Rev. Hooks.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company