Equality remains elusive: Benjamin Hooks recalls a lifetime quest for civil rights in America

by Mike Kroll

When Benjamin Hooks was born in January 1925 his family was comparatively well off by the standards of the time, yet this was a very different time in America. Racism, bigotry and segregation were the rule nationwide but certainly in Memphis. His father Robert was the rare black man who owned his own business as a photographer supporting a wife and seven children (Benjamin was fifth). He came from a family that not only prized education-- one that demonstrated the value of education. Hooks' grandmother was but the second black woman in this country to graduate from college, Berea College in Kentucky.

Hooks spoke to a crowd of about 200 at Carl Sandburg College Tuesday night as part of the school's black history month celebration. At 79 he moves a little slower and walks with the aide of a clear acrylic cane but his voice and stature as a speaker betray his many year's practice as a baptist minister. Hooks gave a rousing speech during which he related his experiences as a black man in America. A time line that can be best illustrated in the accepted vernacular of the periods: from nigger or boy to colored then Negro followed by black and most recently African-American. Hooks lived all those lives, as did many others, but Hooks helped play a significant role in the linguistic progression.

He related of growing up black in the south during the first half of the twentieth century. Living life as a third-class citizen in the richest country on earth. He couldn't eat with white folks, he didn't travel with white folks, he didn't go to school with white folks and he certainly wasn't privileged to relieve himself where white folks did. Even as the son of moderately successful black parents Hooks wore hand-me down clothes and saw his mother work hard to help stretch the family budget while raising seven children. "The simple reality of 'separate but equal' was that everywhere was separate while nowhere was equal."

Education was always important in the Hook's household, and it wasn't limited to just traditional schoolwork and religious faith. There were important life lessons every young black boy or girl needed to learn if they were to successfully coexist in the segregated south. Failure to learn these lessons could get one beaten or even lynched but they were lessons that didn't set well with Hooks or a number of his contemporaries who longed for civil rights when that dream seemed unrealistic.

While religion was important to the Hooks family his father actively discouraged Benjamin from pursuing the ministry. So, when Benjamin went off to college he embarked on a path that would eventually lead from Howard University to De Paul in Chicago where he earned his J.D. In 1948. Determined to work toward civil rights Hooks returned to Memphis where he began practicing law and, to his father's chagrin became an ordained Baptist minister. He fought prejudice and segregation both in the courtroom and from the pulpit.

"I was among only a handful of black lawyers in Memphis at that time and we were treated with derision by white lawyers, the all-white police force and the all-white government bureaucracy. The best we could aspire to was fair treatment by the judge, even if he referred to us as boy in the courtroom."

At the start of the 1950s Hooks was developing somewhat of a local reputation as an upcoming black lawyer. Around this time he met school teacher Frances Dancy at the county fair and the pair wasted little time falling in love. These two intelligent and educated black professionals were married in 1952. During the 1950s Hooks spent Sundays preaching at the Middle Baptist Church in Memphis even as he found time from his legal practice to become a pioneer in civil rights civil disobedience. He staged boycotts and sit-ins with some success while he was less successful pursuing elected office. But the direction of Hook's life was forever changed as he met Martin Luther King, Jr. and joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

At the dawn of the 1960s Hooks became an assistant public defender in Memphis. In 1965 he became the first black judge in Tennessee history when Gov. Frank Clement appointed him to a vacant criminal court judgeship. Just one year later Hooks experienced his first political victory winning the judgeship at the polls. It was in April of 1968 that Judge Hooks saw his civil rights mentor assassinated at a Memphis motel. "At that time my view of the world and my place in it changed forever. Many of us thought then that the great battles for civil rights were over. We believed that we had won and tide was irreversible-- but we celebrated too soon."

Life was anything but civil in 1968. Between protests over the Vietnam War, the ongoing civil rights' movement and a scary confluence of political assassinations America underwent tumultuous times. Richard Nixon was elected president late in 1968 and Hooks returned to the public defender's office. A key battleground in civil rights had become affirmative action and amazingly Nixon was soon to be the driving force behind affirmative action progress, particularly in the construction trades.

By 1970 the Nixon administration enacted both federal statutes and Executive Orders mandating affirmative action and prohibiting employment discrimination in matters receiving federal dollars. The NAACP and its leader at the time, Roy Wilkins, prodded and applauded the Nixon administration efforts as did Hooks who had embraced affirmative action as the next logical step. Nixon's support of "goals" or "quotas" (you pick your pleasure) stirred up a hornets nest in Congress on both sides of the political aisle with Nixon and the NAACP and Benjamin Hooks firmly in the middle. Nixon took note of this eloquent ally and surprised many by appointing Hooks to the Federal Communications Commission in 1972; that commission's first black member.

For the next five year's Hooks pursued an agenda to increase minority ownership of media outlets, expand minority employment in radio and television, and to change the blatantly stereotypical manner blacks and other minorities were portrayed, or more accurately, ignored on television. Hooks was successful on all accounts; minority employment in media jumped from three to fifteen percent in five years and over the next two decades the portrayal of black men and women slowly became more reflective of day-to-day America.

During the years that Hooks served on the FCC times became tough for the NAACP. The group was floundering and its support, financially and otherwise, was waning. By 1978 the executive board of the NAACP was ready for a change and Wilkins retired. The organization turned to Hooks who would serve as executive director for the next 15 years. During this time Hooks tirelessly promoted affirmative action as well as both voter registration and voter participation drives among minority communities.

"I'm glad that the NAACP has always been a multi-racial, multi-cultural organization. In the early days we needed the support of northern liberal whites and today we need to be welcoming Hispanics. There is no question that racial tension exist between blacks and Hispanics which to a large extent reflects the NAACP's successes. Great strides have been made with affirmative action and much of this friction surrounds the division of the grapes. How we handle this could have huge influence on whether or not we can hold on to our gains or we begin to backslide. The backlash against affirmative action and our regressive policies toward immigrants foretell real political problems in the near future."

"What scares me most is that while racism has largely been legislated out of public policy the changes we have accomplished in the hearts and minds of our neighbors are much more fragile and in too many cases merely cosmetic. Historically the strongest ally of civil rights has been the judiciary but I am very much afraid that has now changed. In today's Washington, D.C. neither the Congress nor the courts nor the White House feature advancing civil rights on their agenda."