On November 5, 2007, Dr. Benjamin Lawson Hooks was awarded the Presidential Medal
of Freedom - the nation's highest civil award. "The nation best remembers Benjamin
Hooks as the leader of the NAACP," said President George Bush. "For 15 years, Dr.
Hooks was a calm yet forceful voice for fairness, opportunity, and personal responsibility.
He never tired or faltered in demanding that our nation live up to its founding ideals
of liberty and equality. His testimony had special power - for the words that he spoke
and for the example that he set as a man of decency and rectitude."
A native of Memphis, Hooks was born on January 31, 1925 to Robert and Bessie Hooks.
He was the fifth of seven children. His parents were both hard-working people, and
his paternal grandmother was the second black woman in the United States to graduate
from Berea College in Kentucky. As a result, he was encouraged to do well in his studies
and to prepare for higher education.
Hooks enrolled in pre-law at LeMoyne College in Memphis and then served his country
in the Second World War. He found himself in the humiliating position of guarding
Italian prisoners who were allowed to eat in restaurants that were off limits to him.
This experience strengthened his resolve to battle bigotry.
Hooks earned his J.D. degree in 1948 at DePaul University in Chicago and promptly
returned to Tennessee, which had no law school that would admit him. Hooks vowed to
break down segregation and later passed the Tennessee Bar examination and opened up
his own law practice, confronting prejudice at every turn.
After joining the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, Hooks felt called to the ministry and was ordained a Baptist minister
in 1956. He began preaching regularly at the Greater Middle Baptist Church in Memphis
and became a pioneer in restaurant sit-ins and other boycotts sponsored by the NAACP.
He entered state politics in 1954, making unsuccessful bids for the state legislature
and juvenile court judge. Eleven years later, Tennessee governor Frank G. Clement
appointed him to a vacancy on the Shelby County criminal court, making Hooks the first
black criminal court judge in a court of record in Tennessee's history. The following
year he was elected to the position.
In 1972, Hooks became the first African American appointee to the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC). He addressed the lack of minority ownership of television and radio
stations, the lack of minority employment in the broadcasting industry, and the image
of blacks in the mass media. During his tenure, minority employment in broadcasting
rose from three to fifteen percent nationally.
Hooks was elected Executive Director of the NAACP in 1976 and faced declining membership
and organizational problems. "Black Americans are not defeated," he told Ebony Magazine in 1977. "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." Under
his fifteen year leadership, the organization rebounded, adding several hundred thousand
Early in 1990, Hooks and his family were among the targets of a wave of bombings against
civil rights leaders. After visiting the White House to discuss the escalating tensions
between races, he gained the government's full support against racially motivated
bomb attacks. Hooks was still critical of President George H. W. Bush's administration's
lack of support for education and inaction on inner city poverty. However, he did not lay all the blame for America's ills at the feet of its elected officials;
Hooks was a staunch advocate of self-help: "It's time today to bring it out of the
closet. No longer can we proffer polite, explicable reasons why black America cannot
do more for itself," he told the 1990 NAACP convention delegates. "I'm calling for
a moratorium on excuses. I challenge black America today, all of us, to set aside
For the rest of his life, Hooks continued to press the cause for civil rights by encouraging
both the study of the American Civil Rights Movement and the identification of contemporary
issues that affect minorities, the poor, and the disadvantaged. He died at age 85
on April 15, 2010, leaving the Hooks Institute to promote his commitment to social
In 2013 the Institute produced a documentary Duty of the Hour, immortalizing the life of Dr. Hooks in film.