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Civil Rights Leader Benjamin Hooks Dead at 85

Benjamin Hooks (seen here in July 2009) led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for 15 years, beginning in 1977.

Former head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was an outspoken activist for racial equality and justice

African-American jurist and pioneering civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks has died at the age of 85, following a long illness.

Benjamin Hooks was born in 1925 in Memphis, Tennessee — a city, like most in the racially-segregated American South at the time, that discriminated against African-Americans in all areas of public life.

Yet Hooks' family exposed him early on to what civil rights activists of his generation came to call the Freedom Struggle.

Facing segregation

For example, Hooks' parents always insisted that whites address them as Mr. and Mrs. Hooks, rather than by their first names, as was the custom when whites spoke to blacks. And Hooks' older sister was secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the national civil rights group he would one day lead.

"And so around the table, morning and night, I heard my mother and father and my sister discussing events involving black treatment in America. We discussed it all the time," Hooks once said. "And most of their friends discussed it with them when they came around. So that my family was a sort of non-violent resistance family. It was a part of my being as long as I can remember."

Benjamin Hooks (1925-2010)
Benjamin Hooks (1925-2010)

Hooks graduated from high school in 1941, and enrolled in a local college.

However, like millions of others, Hooks left his studies to serve in the armed forces during World War II. At training camp, he and the 12 other African-Americans in his squadron of 200 were automatically segregated from the whites.

Breaking down barriers

"So when I came out of the Army, I had already decided I wanted to be a part of breaking down segregation," he said. "Because I felt it had to be broken down. I felt it would be broken. So I consciously devoted my life to that."

After his 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. But, within a year, he returned home to Memphis to work with the NAACP.

Then, as now, American blacks disagreed about how to achieve justice and equality. Hooks recalled that while some activists advocated violence, he had another view.

"I chose to try to make progress, and the concept of burning down a building or lighting a torch just seemed to me to be essentially crazy. That's why I chose the NAACP. Because their method was legal change through the court system, or through action by the Congress," he said.

Civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks became Tennessee’s first black criminal court judge in 1965.
Civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks became Tennessee’s first black criminal court judge in 1965.

Legal activism

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, Jr. Both King and Hooks wanted to effect social change through a combination of moral force and legislation.

But Hooks put more emphasis on legal activism than Dr. King, who spoke as often about changing white people's hearts as he did about changing the laws.

"We felt like no matter how non-violent you were, unless you had a law on the books or a decree by a court, that the same restaurant that could open up its door to a black person on Monday could close it on Tuesday if there were no law demanding it be kept open."

Leading the NAACP

The pinnacle 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 the late Martin Luther King, Jr. He also led an intensive effort to increase African-American representation on the boards of America's largest corporations.

"These were the kind of things that we did at the NAACP, trying to bring about an end to the concept of segregation in America," he said.

But Hooks was 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 country to enable young African American to stay in school and earn the degrees that would be their passports to social equality and effective citizenship.

Lasting legacy

After his retirement from the NAACP in 1992, Hooks continued to press the cause of civil rights and education. He helped create the Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis, to preserve the history of the civil rights movement and advance its legacy.

At a White House ceremony in 2007, Benjamin Hooks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. And in January 2008, he was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia.

After his death was announced on Thursday, April 15, Benjamin Hooks was remembered as a pioneer, preacher, storyteller, conciliator and visionary, and a vocal campaigner for civil rights in the United States.