Benjamin Lawson Hooks (born January 31, 1925), is an American civil rights leader. A Baptist minister and practicing attorney, he served as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1977 to 1992, and throughout his career has been a vocal campaigner for civil rights in the United States.
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 recalls 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.
Benjamin is a member of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.
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 J.D. (law) 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-year-old 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 all-black 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. He joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (then known as Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration) along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He also became a pioneer in the NAACP-sponsored restaurant sit-ins and other boycotts of consumer items and services.
In addition to his other roles, he decided to enter Tennessee state politics and ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature in 1954 and for juvenile court judge in 1959 and 1963. Despite his losses, the personable young lawyer and preacher attracted not only black voters but liberal whites as well. By 1965 he was well enough known that Tennessee Governor Frank G. Clement appointed him to fill a vacancy in the Shelby County criminal court. With this he became the first black criminal court judge in Tennessee history. His temporary appointment to the bench expired in 1966 but he campaigned for, and won election to a full term in the same judicial office.
By the late 1960s Hooks was a judge, a businessman, a lawyer, and a minister, but he continued to do more. Twice a month he flew to Detroit to preach at the Greater New Mount Moriah Baptist Church. He also continued to work with the NAACP in civil rights protests and marches. Fortunately for Hooks, his wife Frances matched him in energy and stamina. She became her husband’s assistant, secretary, advisor, and traveling companion, even though it meant sacrificing her own career. “He said he needed me to help him”, she told Ebony. “Few husbands tell their wives that they need them after 30 years of marriage, so I gave it up and here I am, right by his side.”
Hooks had been a producer and host of several local television shows in Memphis in addition to his other duties and was a strong supporter of Republican political candidates. In 1972, President Richard Nixon appointed Hooks to be one of the five commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The Senate confirmed the nomination, and Benjamin and Frances Hooks moved to Washington, D.C. in 1973. As a member of the FCC, Hooks addressed the lack of minority ownership of television and radio stations, the minority employment statistics for the broadcasting industry, and the image of blacks in the mass media. Hooks completed his five-year term on the board of commissioners in 1978, but he continued to work for black involvement in the entertainment industry.
On November 6, 1976, the 64-member board of directors of the NAACP elected Hooks executive director of the organization. In the late 1970s the membership had declined from a high of about 500,000 to only about 200,000. Hooks was determined to add to the enrollment and to raise money for the organization’s severely depleted treasury, without changing the NAACP’s goals or mandates. “Black Americans are not defeated,” he told Ebony soon after his formal induction in 1977. “The civil rights movement is not dead. If anyone thinks that we are going to stop agitating, they had better think again. If anyone thinks that we are going to stop litigating, they had better close the courts. If anyone thinks that we are not going to demonstrate and protest, they had better roll up the sidewalks.”
In his early years at the NAACP, Hooks had some bitter arguments with Margaret Bush Wilson, chairwoman of the NAACP’s board of directors. At one point in 1983, Wilson summarily suspended Hooks after a quarrel over the organization’s policy. Wilson accused Hooks of mismanagement but the charges were never proven. A majority of the board backed Hooks and he never officially left his post as executive director. He has overseen the organization’s positions on affirmative action, federal aid to cities, foreign relations with repressive governments such as that in South Africa, and domestic policy decisions of every sort. Hooks likes to call himself “just a poor little ol’ country preacher,” but his modesty hardly hides his long list of accomplishments.
In 1980, Hooks explained why the NAACP was against using violence to obtain civil rights:
Early in 1990 Hooks and his family were among the targets in a wave of bombings against civil rights leaders. Hooks visited President George H. W. Bush in the White House to discuss the escalating tensions between races. He emerged from that meeting with the government’s full support against racially motivated bomb attacks, but he was very critical of the administration’s apparent lack of action concerning inner city poverty and lack of support for public education.
On the other hand, Hooks would not lay all the blame for America’s ills at the feet of its elected officials. He has been a staunch advocate of self-help among the black community, urging wealthy and middle-class blacks to give time and resources to those less fortunate. “It’s time today... to bring it out of the closet: No longer can we proffer polite, explicable, reasons why Black America cannot do more for itself,” he told the 1990 NAACP convention delegates. “I’m calling for a moratorium on excuses. I challenge black America today—all of us—to set aside our alibis.”
By 1991 some younger members of the NAACP thought that Hooks had lost touch with black America and ought to resign. One newspaper wrote: “Critics say the organization is a dinosaur whose national leadership is still living in the glory days of the civil rights movement.” Dr. Frederick Zak, a young local NAACP president, was quoted as saying, “There is a tendency by some of the older people to romanticize the struggle—especially the marching and the picketing and the boycotting and the going to jail.”
Hooks feels that the perilous times of the civil rights movement should never be taken for granted, especially by those who were born in the aftermath of the movement’s gains. “A young black man can’t understand what it means to have something he’s never been denied,’ Hooks told U.S. News & World Report. “I can’t make them understand the mental relief I feel at the rights we have. It almost infuriates me that people don’t understand what integration has done for this country.”
Hooks and his wife handled the NAACP’s business and helped to plan for its future for more than 15 years. He told the New York Times that a “sense of duty and responsibility” to the NAACP compelled him to stay in office through the 1990s, but eventually the demands of the executive director position proved too great for a man of his age. In February 1992, at the age of 67, he announced his resignation from the post, calling it “a killing job,” according to the Detroit Free Press. Hooks stated that he would serve out the 1992 year and predicted that a change in leadership would not jeopardize the NAACP’s stability: “We’ve been through some little stormy periods before. I think we’ll overcome it.”
Hooks is currently serving as a distinguished adjunct professor for the Political Science department of the University of Memphis. In 1996, the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change was established at the University of Memphis. The Hooks Institute is a public policy research center supporting the urban research mission of the University of Memphis, and honoring Hooks’ many years of leadership in the American Civil Rights Movement. The Institute works to advance understanding of the legacy of the American Civil Rights Movement – and of other movements for social justice – through teaching, research and community programs that emphasize social movements, race relations, strong communities, public education, effective public participation, and social and economic justice.
Hooks also resumed preaching at the Greater Middle Baptist Church in Memphis where he had begun preaching in 1956.
On March 24, 2001, Benjamin Hooks and Frances Hooks renewed their wedding vows for the third time, after nearly 50 years of marriage. The ceremony was held in the Greater Middle Baptist Church in Memphis .