Attorney Benjamin Lawson Hooks (born 1925) was the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and served from 1972 to 1977 as the first African American commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. He led the historic prayer vigil in Washington DC in 1979 against the Mott anti-busing amendment which was eventually defeated in Congress.
Benjamin Lawson Hooks, the fifth of seven children, was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1925 to Robert B. and Bessie Hooks. Hooks' family was relatively prosperous because, in 1907, his father and uncle established a successful photography business that was widely patronized by the Memphis African-American community. Because the society was so rigidly segregated along racial lines at that time, many establishments would not serve African Americans. Consequently, numerous African American-owned businesses were founded in the South to meet the needs of the African American populace. His grandmother, a musician who graduated from Berea College in Kentucky, was the second African American female college graduate in the nation. With such evidence of success and hard work as his personal examples, Hooks was encouraged to do well in his studies and prepare for higher education.
Following the Depression of 1929, changes occurred in the Hooks family's standard of living. With money so scarce during those years, African American clients could rarely afford the luxury of wedding pictures or family portraits, so business came to a virtual standstill. They were sad days indeed when the lights were turned out in the Hooks' home and when the bank foreclosed on the mortgage. Still, the family always had clothing and shelter, and no one ever went hungry. In the years after the Depression the family business revived and even several decades later, after his father's death, one of Hooks' brothers continued to maintain it. Perhaps because of the rigors of business life and social prominence in the African American community, Hooks' parents were careful to see that all of their children were conscientious about their appearance, attitude, and academic performance. Hooks learned discipline from his parents' teaching and example.
After completing high school, Hooks decided to remain in Memphis to study pre-law at LeMoyne College. He successfully completed that program and then headed for Italy, where he served in the army during World War II guarding Italian prisoners of war. He felt humiliated that these prisoners were allowed to eat in restaurants that were off limits to him, and that in Memphis, they would have more rights than he. The experience deepened his resolve to do something about the bigotry in the South. When he returned to the United States, he continued his studies at Howard University. From there he went to Chicago where he attended DePaul University Law School—since no law school in the South would admit him. Although he could have established a law practice in Chicago when he graduated in 1948, he chose to return to Memphis to aid in the struggle for civil rights in the South. From 1949 to 1965 he practiced law in Memphis, as one of the few African American lawyers in town.. He recalled in Jetmagazine "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.' 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 of civil rights progress."
In 1949, Hooks met a 24 year old teacher named Frances Dancy, whom he met at the Shelby County Fair. In 1952 they were married. Frances Hooks recalled in Ebony magazine that her husband was "good-looking, very quiet very intelligent. … He loved to go around to churches and that type of thing, so I started going with him. He was really a good catch."
For years Hooks resisted the call to the gospel ministry. His father had little respect for organized religion, and Hooks had no urge to go against his father's wishes. However, in 1955 he began to preach, and in 1956 he was ordained a Baptist minister. He joined Reverend Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He pastored a church in Memphis and one in Detroit at the same time. Hooks, a man of many talents, was not content with his two chosen professions. His interest in business prompted him to become a bank director, the co-founder of a life insurance company, and the founder of an unsuccessful fried-chicken franchise. After several attempts to be elected to public office as a Republican candidate, his political ambitions were realized when he was appointed to serve as a criminal judge in Shelby County (Memphis) in 1965. He thus became the first African American criminal court judge in Tennessee history. The following year he was elected to the same position.
No matter how busy he was with his varied activities, Hooks always found time to take part in civil rights protests. He became a life member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served on the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He was a pioneer in the NAACP-sponsored restaurant sit-ins and other boycotts that demonstrated the economic power as well as the anger of the African American community against the discrimination that was so pervasive at the time. In spite of his shyness he became a proficient orator whose combination of quick wit and homespun humor delighted audiences. He used this ability as the moderator of television shows called Conversations in Black and White and Forty Percent Speak (the percent of the African American population of Memphis) and as a panelist on the program What Is Your Faith?
Federal Communications Commissioner
Hooks was so often in the public eye that it is not surprising that Tennessee Senator Howard Baker submitted his name to President Richard M. Nixon for political appointment. While he was campaigning, Nixon had promised African American voters that he would see that they were treated fairly by the broadcast media. Thus, in 1972 when there was a vacancy on the seven-member board of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Hooks was named to fill it. Although Hooks was not the choice of the most articulate African American groups, including the Black Congressional Caucus, the great majority acquiesced gracefully to his appointment. Benjamin and Frances Hooks soon moved to Washington, D.C. Fortunately for Hooks, his wife matched him in energy, stamina and ambition. She often served as his assistant, secretary, advisor, and traveling companion, even though it meant that her own distinguished career as a teacher and guidance counselor was sacrificed. She told Ebony magazine, "He said he needed me to help him. Few husbands tell their wives that they need them after thirty years of marriage, so I gave it up and here I am. Right by his side."
The new position at the FCC gave Hooks a real opportunity to effectuate change in the roles of minorities in the entire broadcast industry. The FCC was responsible for granting licenses to television, radio, and cable television stations and for regulating long distance telephone, telegraph, and satellite communications systems. Hooks felt that his primary role was to bring a minority point of view to the commission. He stated that although he had been nominated by the president, he represented the interests of African Americans, the largest minority in the nation. Hooks was appalled to find that only three percent of those employed by the FCC were African American people, and they were generally in low-paying positions. He encouraged the commission to hire more African American workers at all levels. By the time that he left FCC, African Americans constituted about 11 percent of the employee population. Hooks made a concerted effort during his years as a commissioner to see that African Americans were fairly treated in news coverage and to urge public television stations to be more responsive to the needs of African American viewers by including historical and cultural programming directed toward them.
National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People
After serving on the FCC for five years, Hooks was asked to be the executive director of the NAACP, the organization which had formed the vanguard of civil rights advocacy from the beginning of the 20th century. Roy Wilkins, who had held the director's position since 1955, was retiring, and the NAACP board of directors wanted an able leader to take his place. They unanimously agreed that Hooks was the man. He resigned from the commission and officially began his directorship on August 1, 1977.
When Hooks took over the organization, the NAACP was in financial straits and membership had dwindled from half a million to just over 200, 000. Still the NAACP had local and regional offices throughout the country. He immediately directed his attention toward rebuilding the economic base of the association through a concentrated membership drive. He also advocated increased employment opportunities for minorities and the complete removal of United States businesses from South Africa. He told Ebony magazine "Black Americans are not defeated. … The civil rights movement is not dead. If anyone thinks 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 we are not going to demonstrate and protest … they had better roll up the sidewalks."
Hooks' tenure at the NAACP was fraught with bitter internal controversy. He was suspended by the chair of the NAACP's board, Margaret Bush Wilson, after she accused him of mismanagement. These charges were never proven. In fact he was backed by a majority of 64 member board and continued his tenure until his retirement in 1992.
Throughout his career, Hooks has been a staunch advocate for self-help among the African American community. He urges wealthy and middle class African Americans to give time and resources to those who are less fortunate. "Its time today … to bring it out of the closet. No longer can we provide polite, explicable reasons why Black America cannot do more for itself" he told the 1990 NAACP convention as quoted by the Chicago Tribune. "I am calling for a moratorium on excuses. I challenge black America today— all of us—to set aside our alibis."
After his retirement, Hooks served as Pastor of Middle Baptist Church and president of the National Civil Rights Museum, both in Memphis. He also taught at Fisk University.
Further Reading on Benjamin Lawson Hooks
There is no full-length biography of Hooks. However, articles and biographical sketches are included in Ebony Success Library (1973); Ebony magazine (June 1975); Jet (December 1972); and Broadcasting (April 1972). See also Minnie Finch, The NAACP, Its Fight for Justice (1981) and Warren D. James, NAACP, Triumphs of a Pressure Group, 1909-1980 (1980).