Benjamin Hooks, 1925-2010

Staff of the Amistad Research Center are saddened to learn of the death of Benjamin L. Hooks, celebrated civil rights leader. Hooks, who died early this morning, is best known for his term as a former Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during the Nixon administration and his lengthy stint as the Executive Director of the NAACP.

Born in Memphis in 1925, Hooks came from one of the most influential African American families in that city. Growing up, he worked at his father’s photography studio on Beale Street, and he enrolled at LeMoyne College in Memphis when he was sixteen. Hooks’ studies were interrupted by his service in World War II, where he served for over three years in Italy. Hooks returned to the United States in 1946, and he earned a law degree from DePaul University two years later.

After graduating from DePaul, Hooks became only the second African American practicing law in Memphis. In addition to his private law practice, Hooks participated in several entrepreneurial ventures with community businessmen – he organized a federal savings and loan association, served as president of the Mahalia Jackson Chicken franchise, among other ventures. Hooks hoped that his entrepreneurial endeavors would serve as a model for other African Americans to follow.

By the 1960s, Hooks focused his energies more on public service, and, ever the pioneer amidst the recalcitrant power systems in the mid-century South, Hooks amassed an impressive range of notable “firsts”. In 1961, Hooks became the first African American public defender in Memphis, and in 1965 Tennessee Governor Frank Clement appointed Hooks to serve as a criminal court judge in Shelby County. With this appointment, Hooks became the first African American judge to serve in the South since Reconstruction. In 1972, President Nixon appointed Hooks to serve as the Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), representing another first for African Americans.

In Hooks’ civic life, too, he utilized his hard-earned positions of authority to broker change within his sphere of influence. To name just a few examples, during his judgeship in Tennessee, Hooks worked to change the selection process for jury pools. As FCC commissioner, Hooks frequently and publicly decried the dearth of African American-owned broadcasting channels; Hooks fought to install affirmative action programs within the entertainment industry, and minority employment in the entertainment industry increased fivefold by the end of his tenure with the FCC.

In 1976, Hooks was elected to serve as Executive Director of the NAACP, a position he held until 1992. Hooks assumed leadership of the NAACP during a difficult period in the organization’s history, during which it struggled to garner national attention after decades of vigorous participation in the civil rights movement. Hooks led the NAACP in its protest against South African Apartheid, which influenced American public opinion on the issue. Hooks also presided over the NAACP’s public stance against the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and the condemnation of the court system in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict.

In 1979, Hooks donated papers to the Amistad Research Center which chronicle his work with the FCC. The Benjamin Hooks Papers include speeches, memoranda, and correspondence which reflect the impact that Hooks had on the FCC, especially in the area of affirmative action, and offer insight into the life and career of this civil rights pioneer.

Posted by Andrew Salinas

(From the Amistad Research Center. Image may not be reproduced without permission.)

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