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Subscriber: null; date: 18 October 2018

Hooks, Benjamin

Abstract and Keywords

Benjamin L. Hooks (1925–2010) was best known as an African American civil rights leader, lawyer, Baptist minister, gifted orator, and a businessman (co-founder of a bank and chicken fast-food franchises), who was executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) (1977–1992). Hooks was appointed by President Richard Nixon as one of five commissioners (first African American) of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1972, commencing in 1973 with confirmation by the Senate.

Keywords: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), African American civil rights leader, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), American Bar Association

Benjamin Lawson Hooks (1925–2010) was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the fifth of seven children. Hooks was raised by his parents; his father was a photographer who owned a studio with his brother (Hooks Brothers). Hooks came from a legacy of college graduates; his paternal grandmother, a musical prodigy, was the second American black woman to graduate from Berea College in Kentucky (1874); and her sister, who also attended Berea College, became a physician. His father encouraged him to seek an education all the while not supporting Hooks’s desire to become a minister, which he later became. His early years in college were at LeMoyne-Owen College, studying pre-law; he graduated from Howard University in 1944 and enlisted in the Army, earning the rank of staff sergeant. During this time, he continued to be exposed to racial segregation in such places as the military, restrooms, water fountains, and lunch counters. In 1948, Hooks graduated from DePaul University College of Law, earning his juris doctor (JD) degree and developing a reputation for fighting racial segregation in his law practice.

Hooks was ordained in 1956 as a Baptist minister; he preached regularly at Greater Middle Baptist Church in Memphis while maintaining his law practice. He joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hooks entered politics, running unsuccessfully for several offices (1954–1963); given his popularity, in 1965, Tennessee Governor Frank G. Clement appointed him to fill a vacancy, and thus Hooks became the first black criminal court judge in the state, later winning a full term in the same judicial office.

Hooks, full of energy and commitment, flew to Detroit twice monthly in the 1960s to minister at the Greater New Mount Moriah Baptist Church; he was supported by his wife as secretary, traveling companion, and advisor. As an FCC commissioner for five years, Hooks was a strong advocate for increased minority ownership of television and radio stations and involvement in the entertainment industry. Under Hooks’s leadership of the NAACP, following a 22-year reign by civil rights activists Roy Wilkins, he wrestled the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush over the preservation of gains made previously, especially those related to school bussing and affirmative action. During his time in that office, Hooks and his family were the targets of racially motivated bombings. Although he is credited with increasing corporate donations from $696,000 in 1978 to $3.7 million in 1993, stabilizing the organization, it is said that he failed to proactively address intergenerational issues and make the NAACP relevant to its younger, college-educated black members who had attained middle-class status in the 1970s and 1980s, and that he failed to utilize modern research techniques, such as polling and focus groups. He also had to address power struggles over issues such as his opposition to programs as condom distribution in schools and health clinics as a measure to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. In 1978, he was suspended by chairwoman Margaret Bush Wilson, based on a never-proven assertion that he was mismanaging the organization. He was reinstated by the board and Wilson was stripped of her powers.

In 1995, Hooks retired after 15 years as executive director of the NAACP. He returned to preaching at the Greater Middle Baptist Church while serving as a distinguished adjunct political science professor at the University of Memphis, where the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute of Social Change was established in 1996.

Benjamin Hooks received numerous honors and awards: an honorary doctorate from Central Connecticut State University, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush, membership in the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame, and the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, Benjamin L. Hooks Distinguished Service Award.