Thursday, April 15, 2010

Civil Rights Icon Benjamin Hooks Dies

Photo by Matthew Craig
Benjamin Hooks is seen here in a 2004 file photo. The civil rights leader, lawyer, judge and Baptist preacher died early today at the age of 85.

Civil Rights Icon Benjamin Hooks Dies

By Zack McMillin, Cindy Wolff 
Memphis Commercial Appeal
Originally published 06:32 a.m., April 15, 2010
Updated 11:55 a.m., April 15, 2010

When President George W. Bush presented the Rev. Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Dr. Hooks said, "I thank God and I thank the people for what they gave me, and that was an opportunity to serve."

That ferocious commitment to serve his fellow man often compelled his wife of 50 years, Frances, to sometimes jokingly remind Dr. Hooks that he had a wife and a personal life, too.

The civil rights leader, lawyer, judge and Baptist preacher died early today at Methodist University Hospital in Memphis. He was 85 and had long suffered from various illnesses, but as recently as last fall he was delivering a lecture to a House Judiciary Committee at the Capitol that he reprised for an event at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis.

"A hero, an icon, and a Memphis legend," Memphis Mayor A C Wharton wrote this morning on Twitter when he first heard of the passing.

Wharton later issued a long statement calling Hooks “one of the great citizen in our country’s history” and “one of the most prolific and engaged fighters for the common man and woman we’ve seen in this century.”

He ordered flags at City Hall lowered to half staff.

“In the same way that the Founding Fathers helped to shape the ideals for a new nation, Benjamin Hooks was among a rarefied class of Civil Rights leaders whose work in championing the cause of basic freedom and refining the very definition of opportunity transformed American life,” Wharton said. “There are few if any major civil rights advances over the last 50 years that do not carry his fingerprint, whether through direct participation or indirect influence.”

In an interview today, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of Rainbow PUSH, said he felt a "tremendous sense of loss" at the passing of Hooks.

"He is a legend. Ben Hooks was one of the tallest trees in the forest of social justice and a key to transforming our nation. ... His civil rights work preceded Dr. (Martin Luther) King (Jr.)’s work and continued long after Dr. King’s death," Jackson said.

The life of Dr. Hooks, who in World War II guarded prisoners of war as an Army soldier, was marked with firsts. Appointed to the Tennessee Criminal Court in 1965, he became the first African-American judge in the South since Reconstruction. President Richard Nixon tapped Hooks to become the first black member of the Federal Communications Commission, where he served for five years before resigning to take over the NAACP – which he would lead from 1977 to 1992, pulling it from the brink of bankruptcy.

The man who worked with Dr. King during the Civil Rights Movement -- and sat on his balcony overlooking the Mississippi River to talk to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama -- spent a busy life fighting for social justice and compassion for his fellow man. From a boy who grew up at his father's photography business on Beale Street dreaming of working at The Peabody, Hooks transformed himself into one of the most accomplished, respected and honored men in the city’s history.

“Brotherhood is perhaps the greatest theme in the life and character of Dr. Benjamin Hooks,” President Bush said when honoring him in 2007. “The man has always had what his friend, Dr. King, called the strength to love. As a civil rights activist, public servant, and minister of the Gospel, Dr. Hooks has extended the hand of fellowship throughout his years. It was not an always easy thing to do. But it was always the right thing to do.”

Mrs. Hooks said her husband awoke every morning to read his newspaper and then make calls based on what he read. Maybe an obituary or something political stirring that he felt he needed to weigh in on. He never sat still for long or abided social injustice.

The same man who participated in sit-ins in restaurants, where blacks weren’t allowed to eat at lunch counters, lived to see the first black man elected President of the United States.

“In a nutshell, I am proud and happy to have lived to see this day,” he said a few days before traveling to Washington for President Obama's inauguration. “Amen. Amen. Aaay-men!”

Having seen race play such a toxic role for so many generations, Dr. Hooks admired the way President Obama balanced the issue and perhaps even turned it to his advantage.

“How can he avoid race when every time he stands up, every time he brushes his teeth or catches a plane, it is there? When you are black, it is with you every moment of your life,” Dr. Hooks said. “But I think he played his cards just right. He tried to say, ‘I understand how bad America has been but I’m not gonna spend all day talking about what you didn’t do. Let’s talk about what you can do.’”

Dr. Hooks grew up in Memphis, the fifth of seven children to Robert and Bessie Hooks. Unable to access libraries in Memphis growing up, Hooks was honored late in life when the City of Memphis named its new main library after him.

"We bought the books; they won't read them. We open the libraries; they won't use them," Hooks would say at that White House ceremony.

And: "When I get on that subject I do get fairly emotional because I remember how hard we fought to use the library. Now it's open and so many young people don't go."

Dr. Hooks attended Howard University and had to leave the South to get his law degree, at DePaul University in Chicago. He built a solid career and became a leader in the local Civil Rights Movement, joining other icons like Judge H.T. Lockard in using the law to advance the cause.

His friend, Judge Russell Sugarmon, last year remembered a trip with Hooks and A.W. Willis to Somerville, Tenn., to help local black citizens – to the great disdain of many of the area’s white citizens. Returning at night, the trio noticed more and more cars following them, ominously.

"A.W. said, 'Look at all those cars; it's like a funeral procession,' " Sugarmon said. "Benny Hooks says, 'Why the hell would you say something like that at a time like this?' "

Dr. Hooks was among those in the crowd in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the march on Washington. He recalled how King, urged by gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, departed from a prepared speech to talk about "his dream," that he had shared at a rally in Detroit months earlier.

"So halfway through the speech, Martin shifted gears and, if you read the speech, you can hardly tell when he did it, and started that great oration on 'I Have a Dream,' which will last as long as the Gettysburg Address.

"It was hot that day and people were fainting and falling into the water. Mahalia Jackson sang as never before. So I shall never forget that day," Hooks said.

Hooks overcame a fear of public speaking to become a preacher himself, at Greater Middle Baptist Church, where he delivered sermons for 52 years before retiring from the pulpit early last year. He also served many years as pastor at Greater New Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, commuting there from Memphis and Washington. Dr. Hooks gave addresses at the Republican and Democratic national conventions, delivered commencement addresses and earned dozens of honorary doctorates from prestigious universities.

But it took effort, Hooks said.

"I could preach to the chickens and cats and dogs and line them up and make them hear my sermons," Hooks told The Commercial Appeal last year. "When it comes to other folks, I just could not do it."

All those years later, Hooks would wince recalling the address he gave as salutatorian of his eighth-grade class at Porter Elementary. "I shall never forget that speech -- I cried all the way through it," he said. "I don't know that anybody understood it. I wet that speech with my tears."

In 1950, Hooks said, Rev. Alexander Gladney asked him to deliver a lay sermon at St. John's Baptist Church in the Douglass neighborhood. "On that particular Sunday morning, I got up, delivered that speech and I have never been timid, not one day, since then," Hooks said.

It was in the pulpit that Hooks formulated the moral arguments that would serve as the foundations for his formidable legal strategies. His sermons were rooted in the Bible but alive with contemporary relevance.

"He is a person who is passionate about the Gospel, energized about the Word of God and wants everyone to feel the energy and presence of God in their lives," U.S. Dist. Judge Bernice Donald, a member at Greater Middle Baptist, said last year.

On the night of King’s assassination, Dr. Hooks and Rev. James Lawson, one of the key leaders in support of the sanitation workers, “spent much of the night, with a police pass, moving throughout the city and calling for nonviolence,” according to Michael Honey’s 2007 book, “Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign.” Hooks also went on the radio to urge for calm and Memphis did not have the destructive riots seen elsewhere.

Frances Hooks said President Obama stopped by during his campaigning to talk about the FCC and the Civil Rights Movement.

“They just sat out there on that porch and had a great conversation,” she said.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Hooks is survived by his daughter, Patricia Gray, and two grandsons.

President Bush cited one of Hooks’ signature lines when honoring him: “You've got to believe that tomorrow somehow can be, and will be, better than today.”

“Because he had that belief, because he held on to it, because he acted upon it, an old order has passed away,” President Bush said. “And all Americans can be grateful for the good works and the good life of Benjamin L. Hooks.”

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