Benjamin Lawson Hooks strolled into a youth delegates assembly here earlier this week and reprimanded them for not standing up for him.
"You would have stood up for Roy Wilkins," he snapped.
In the first public but still unofficial days of his tenure as the new executive director of the NAACP, Hooks has revealed confidence that at times borders on arrogance, trepidation and unease at the scrutiny of Wilkins loyalists.
Hours after his remark, Hooks introduced Wilkins at a general assembly in the thundering Southern Baptist style of which he is a master. "He's had hard and lonely nights, real lonely nights, but he sees the goodness and the truth," said Hooks, his head turned to the 75-year-old patriarch and his voice floating over the 4,000 delegates. "My God, I wish you hadn't done so well. It wouldn't be so hard to follow."
Born in Memphis, Tenn., 52 years ago, Hooks has been an attorney, a minister, a businessman, a judge, and a television show host. This month he officially ends almost five years as the first black commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission. Why did he take the job with the NAACP? "I did the NAACP, like I did my wife. She asked me to marry her and I did," said Hooks.
Everyone listening laughed. And one of the key reasons Hooks was selected, besides his wide experiences on issues of discrimination, according to board members, is his ease with people. "I like the way he just disappears into a group and moves around," says Margaret Bush Wilson, the NAACP board chairman. She hopes his gregariousness, his popularity on the lecture circuit and his knowledge on the media will bring a new spirit to the 68-year-old organization.
Usually Hooks is a relaxed, quick-moving figure, newly slimmed to within five pounds of his Army weight of 155. He looks thoughtfully disheveled, his thick, neck-length Afro and bristly muttonchop sideburns a contrast to his conservative suits and patent leather shoes.
Hooks grew up in the Memphis of the '20s, a time, he remembers, "when you took your life in your hand even to join the NAACP." Though his father and his uncle were the leading photographers in the black community, business was limited, and Hooks recalls a poor childhood. "We always wore hand-me-downs, but our lives were better than most."
Segregation did not stymie his ambitions. His family has stressed the value of education and the need to make a contribution, even a break-through. When Hooks decided to study law he went to DePaul University in Chicago because the Tennessee law schools did not admit blacks. While a student in Chicago, Hooks drove a cab.Before DePaul, Hooks earned degrees from LeMoyne College and Howard University.
After he served in Italy with the 92nd Infantry Division he deliberately returned to Tennesee, he says, to be part of the crowd to break up the segregation of the south."
He went on to become the first black judge in Shelby County, Tenn.
For Frances Dancy Hooks, 50, a Memphis-born teacher and counselor, this becomes the seventh lifestyle she will have to adjust to. She counted them off as she rode to their tight schedule of receptions in the Cadillac Fleetwood limousine Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.) had lent them. "If Benny were a rich man, he would be a poor man because he would give it all away," says Francis Hooks.
When the plate was passed at a meeting here earlier in the week. Hooks jumped up, took a wad of bills out of his pocket and put in a $100 bill.
"I will be commuting between New York and Memphis because my mother is very ill," Francis Hooks continues. "She is 72 and has had three strokes. And Benny said he would consider me less of a person if I left her alone." The Hooks' have one daughter and two grandchildren.
At his first press conference here yesterday, the former FCC head kidded the television reporters, saying, "In a sense I move from being your superviser to depending on you."
Right now it appears that Hooks' primary agenda will be a public relations one, bringing attention to the 68-year-old organization which some have labelled dormant in recent years. The NAACP's membership has spiralled up recently to 450,000, but it is seriously hampered by financial problems. Hooks has said, that while the NAACP under his leadership will continue to rely on traditional means of fighting racism, it will also expand into more modern tactics of fund-raising and use of the media.
Like Wilkins, Hooks has a moderate philosophy, an ability to discuss issues with the rank and file as well as corporate officials, and a real sense that the past provides a model for the present.
"The American Civil Liberties Union uses lawsuits, the labor unions use lobbying as does Ralph Nader and Common Cause. When the people in New York wanted to protest the Concorde, they stopped traffic. Every white organization is using the time-honored stategy of the NAACP. Why should we abandon the things that work for sake of change," asked Hooks. "But we will be more intense and vigorous."
"I know for a fact this country can be changed. It's a hard task because the country is growing conservative and it's paradoxical that we are facing the same things we faced in 1876," said Hooks yesterday. He added he had found the Carter Administration "both disappointing and gratifying."
He said that the NAACP under Benjamin Hooks would dispel the "myths" that the organization is dead or dying and said mass demonstrations such as the 1963 march on Washington were possibilities. "Yes, we've lost influence but I think it's because, largely, we have been ignored. We have a saying in the South, "If you see me using a crooked green limb don't take it away until you have something better.'"