Benjamin Hooks was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on January 31st, 1925. Memphis, like most cities in the racially-segregated American South at the time, openly discriminated against African Americans in all areas of public life. Hooks'family exposed him early to what civil rights activists of his generation came to call the "Freedom Struggle."
"My family was a sort of non-violent resister family," he recalls. "It was a part of my being as long as I can remember." Hooks' parents insisted that whites address them as "Mr. and Mrs. Hooks," rather than by their first names, as was then the custom when whites spoke to blacks. His older sister was secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, the civil rights group he'd one day lead.
Hooks graduated from high school in 1941, and enrolled in a local college. However, like millions of others, he left his studies to serve in the armed forces during World War Two. At training camp, he and the 12 other African Americans in his squadron of 200 were automatically segregated from the whites. Among the memories that still sting him from that era: in military uniform, guarding Italian prisoners-of-war outside local restaurants that refused to let blacks enter as customers themselves.
"So when I came out of the Army I had already decided I wanted to be a part of breaking down segregation. Because I felt it had to be broken down…. So I consciously devoted my life to that."
After Hooks' Army discharge, no law school in his native Tennessee would admit him because of his color. So Hooks enrolled at De Paul University in Chicago, Illinois, where he earned a law degree in 1948. Although there was far more money to be made as a young black lawyer in Chicago than at home, Hooks returned to Memphis within a year to work with the NAACP there.
Then as now, American blacks disagreed about how to achieve justice and equality. Hooks says that some activists advocated violence, "[but] I chose to make progress, and the concept of burning down a building or lighting a torch just seemed to me to be essentially crazy," he recalls. "I chose the NAACP because their method was legal change through the court system, or through action by the Congress."
During the 1950s, Hooks and the NAACP helped to organize many of the black-led boycotts of segregated white businesses, and non-violent "sit-in" protests that became emblematic of the burgeoning civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Junior.
Both King and Hooks wanted to effect social change through a combination of moral force and legislation. But Hooks says he put more emphasis on legal activism than King, who spoke as often about changing white people's hearts as he did about changing the laws.
"We felt like… the same restaurant that could open up its door to a black person on Monday could close it on Tuesday if there were not laws demanding it be kept open," he explains.
Hooks' groundbreaking career has enabled him to effect changes in racial policy from within the system. In 1965, he became the first black criminal court judge in Tennessee. In 1972, President Richard M. Nixon appointed him to the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, where he oversaw a dramatic increase in the number of blacks who owned or controlled radio and TV stations. He also helped to increase the number of African American lawyers at the FCC from three to 150.
The climax of Hooks' activism came in 1977, when he began his 15-year tenure as director of the NAACP. During this period, Hooks' helped articulate the group's positions on racial equity in hiring and school admissions and the creation of a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King. He also led an intensive effort to increase African-American representation on the boards of America's largest corporations.
But Hooks may be most proud of the youth education programs he helped develop in America's inner cities. Under his leadership, the NAACP held rallies and funded programs across the nation to enable African Americans to stay in school and earn the diplomas and degrees that would be their passports to social equality and effective citizenship.
And he's still urging today's young people to seize the opportunities he and others helped create, reminding them, "Your older brothers and sisters opened the doors for the library. Use them. They've opened the schools of opportunities in these big colleges. Attend them."
Hooks thanks God that the fight for Civil Rights has brought African Americans "a certain distance." He encourages young African Americans to "do your part to make this a better nation."
Well into his 80s, Benjamin Hooks is still doing his part to foster racial and social equality in America. In 2007, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, by George W. Bush, and in 2008 he was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia.
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