A Baptist minister serving on the executive board of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Benjamin Hooks had a long career in law, business, and the judiciary before becoming the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1977.
Hooks was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on 31 January 1925. After studying pre-law at LeMoyne College in Memphis, he served with the Army in Italy during World War II. Although he had experienced segregation his entire life, he found it particularly humiliating that the Italian prisoners of war he guarded were able to eat in restaurants where he could not. When he returned to the United States, he went back to school, first at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and then at DePaul University in Chicago, where he earned a law degree in 1948.
Hooks practiced law in Memphis from 1949 to 1965. In 1956 he was ordained and became pastor of the Greater Middle Baptist Church. He attended an SCLC conference in 1959, and became a member of the SCLC executive board. In 1962, King wrote Hooks that his sermon at Ebenezer’s Youth Day had “made a tremendous impact on our young people and our membership as a whole” (King, 9 April 1962).
Hooks was appointed to a judgeship on the Shelby County Criminal Court in Tennessee in 1965, becoming the first black criminal court judge in the South since Reconstruction. Despite his new role, he maintained his church positions and interest in civil rights activism, becoming a lifetime NAACP member.
During the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, Hooks visited King and was in the audience at the Mason Temple on the stormy night of 3 April 1968, when King gave his last public address, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” Hooks wrote in his autobiography that he knew at the time that he had “witnessed a unique historical event … we had heard a speech unlike any that we had heard before or would likely hear again” (Hooks, 74).
In 1972, President Richard Nixon nominated Hooks to become one of seven commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), making him the first black person to serve on the FCC. While on the commission Hooks advocated increasing the number of black-owned television and radio stations. Hooks left the FCC to become executive director of the NAACP in 1977. In his 15-year tenure at the NAACP, Hooks increased membership and lifted the organization out of debt. The NAACP awarded him its Spingarn Medal in 1986.
Hooks retired in 1993, returning to Fisk University, where the Benjamin Hooks Chair on Social Justice is named after him. He also taught at the University of Memphis, which established the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change in 1996.
Abernathy, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, 1989.
“Benjamin Hooks Installed as Professor of Social Justice at Fisk Univ.,” Jet, 15 November 1993.
Garrow, Bearing the Cross, 1986.
Hooks with Guess, March for Civil Rights, 2003.
King to Hooks, 9 April 1962, MLKJP-GAMK.
Scott Minerbrook, “Being Denied,” U.S. News and World Report, 22 July 1991.