NASHVILLE — Civil rights leader Benjamin L. Hooks, who shrugged off courtroom slurs as a young lawyer before earning a pioneering judgeship and reviving a flagging NAACP, died Thursday (April 15, 2010) in Memphis. He was 85.
Across the country, political leaders and Mr. Hooks' peers in the civil rights movement remembered his wide-ranging accomplishments and said he would want the fight for social justice to continue. State Rep. Ulysses Jones, a member of the church where Mr. Hooks was pastor, said Mr. Hooks died at his home after a long illness.
"Right up to the last, he conveyed … the need for us to fight," said NAACP president Benjamin Jealous, recalling a speech Mr. Hooks gave last year. Mr. Hooks "gave a speech as fiery as any he's given 50 years earlier."
Mr. Hooks took over as the NAACP's executive director at a time when the organization's stature had diminished in 1977. Years removed from the civil rights battles of the 1960s, the group was $1 million in debt and its membership had shrunk to 200,000 from nearly a half-million a decade earlier.
"Black Americans are not defeated," he told Ebony magazine soon after his induction. "The civil rights movement is not dead. If anyone thinks that 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 that we are not going to demonstrate and protest, they had better roll up the sidewalks."
When he left as executive director in 1992, the group's membership had grown by several hundred thousand.
State Rep. John Deberry, a fellow minister and chairman of the Tennessee Black Caucus, said Mr. Hooks' passing is a sobering reminder that "we are losing an incredible generation of men and women who changed the world."
Mr. Hooks' inspiration to fight social injustice and bigotry stemmed from his experience guarding Italian prisoners of war while serving overseas in the Army during World War II. Foreign prisoners were allowed to eat in "for whites only" restaurants while he was barred from them.
When no law school in the South would admit him, he used the GI bill to attend DePaul University in Chicago, where he earned a law degree in 1948. He later opened his own law practice in his hometown of Memphis.
"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,' " he once said in an interview with Jet magazine. "Usually it was just 'boy.' "
President George W. Bush in 2007 presented Mr. Hooks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the country's highest civilian honors.
"Dr. Hooks was a calm yet forceful voice for fairness, opportunity and personal responsibility," Bush said in 2007. "He never tired or faltered in demanding that our nation live up to its founding ideals of liberty and equality."