Hooks stops briefly by a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
stained-glass window inside the National Civil Rights
Museum after finishing an interview with the BBC in
Most people might mention the Ned R. McWherter Library or
the Art Museum when discussing campus gems, but another treasure
is locked quietly away behind the door to 431 Clement Hall
at The University of Memphis.
The room is filled with box upon box of papers donated by
civil rights icon Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks, a U of M distinguished
adjunct professor of political science and history. The room
in Clement Hall may not seem visually impressive, but the
boxes contain a first-hand account of some of the most pivotal
events of the past 50 years in this country.
Coinciding with the Hooks donation, a number of faculty members
have established the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social
Change. With new financial support from Congress, The U of
M promises to be a continued hub of civil rights research
as the Institute marches on with unwavering vigor.
The support, in the form of an $835,000 Congressional
Award, will further strengthen an already active campus
organization. The Hooks Institute, along with managing the
archives project, sponsors the Civil Rights Movement
in the Schools program, the Hooks Symposia and
Lecture series, the Working and Occasional Papers
series and a memoirs project.
A triumvirate of U of M professors helped establish the Institute:
Dr. David Mason, former professor and chair of political science;
David Madlock, adviser of political science; and Dr. Doug
Imig, associate professor of political science. Mason says
the Institute attempts to connect research, education and
public outreach to stress the continuing relevance of struggles
for equality. Imig adds, Weve got something for
The something-for-everyone approach begins with Memphis
youngest citizens. The Institute brings between 400 and 600
sixth-graders to campus each year for the Civil Rights
in the Schools project.
We want to start the children off early on the path
to effective citizenship, Madlock (BA 73, MA 77)
The day-long program, which was featured on C-SPAN in 2000,
focuses on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which is
now more than a generation removed from todays youth.
The U of M College of Education collaborated with the Institute
in the creation of a teachers guide so area educators
could continue the learning process back in the classroom.
Imig says he hopes the program will not only educate children
about the Civil Rights Movement, but also spark an early interest
This year, one of the children asked, How can
a kid like me afford to go to college? Imig says.
Dr. Raines was there and said, If you do your
part and keep your grades up, therell be a space for
you here at this University and a way to pay for it.
The symposia and lectures, meanwhile, are geared toward college
students and the public. One recent speaker, Dr. Marion Orr
from Brown University, spoke about finding community leaders
beyond the corporate world. Leading to a smart, passionate
discussion about community revitalization, the lecture was
a prime example of the high-caliber associations the Institute
has sought out.
The latest symposium brought three notable black mayors to
campus: Richard Hatcher of Gary, Ind.; David Dinkins, former
mayor of New York City; and Memphis own Willie Herenton
(MA 66). The trio talked about their experiences of
being the first black mayors in their respective cities.
Many agree that a key to achieving complete equality is through
the acquisition and distribution of knowledge. The Institute
has mimicked a sponge soaking up information and squeezing
it back out and the Congressional Award gives a much-needed
boost to that effort.
Weve been fortunate, Imig says of the award.
A wide range of groups has been excited by what were
trying to achieve. Nike has been an active supporter
from the beginning, and other corporate sponsors have since
joined the list, including Chick-Fil-A and Bank of Bartlett.
But the Institute has more than just monetary support
it has political teeth. Imig says Hooks longtime involvement
in the civil rights arena has made current connections possible.
Dr. Hooks has fought the good fight for many years,
and the friends he has made in that time are strong supporters,
he says. This has been a bipartisan effort. Hooks has
a long legacy of support from and for Democrats and Republicans.
Hes been able to play politics in a very
Given his credentials, it should come as no surprise that
Hooks has been able to operate with such political harmony.
He served as the first black appointee to the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) and as executive director of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Just as important, though, are other titles hes taken
over the years: lawyer, corporate board chair, businessman,
minister, husband, father.
Hooks was born in 1925 in Memphis, where he grew up and attended
LeMoyne College in 1941. School was soon set on the back burner
as Hooks entered the U.S. Army and served in World War II.
Guarding Italian prisoners of war who had more rights than
he did, Hooks began to take great interest in social change.
In Italy, we saw a place that was not segregated based
on color, Hooks says. It dawned on me that those
of us in the Army had to realize change was coming in U.S.
racial relations. From my own point, I wanted to have a part
in that change.
After the war, Hooks resumed his studies, heading to DePaul
University in Chicago for his law degree because no law school
in Tennessee was enrolling black students. In 1948, he graduated
and returned to Memphis and married Frances Dancy, an elementary
school teacher, in 1951.
Law wasnt Hooks only career interest. He became
an ordained Baptist minister in 1956. Anyone who has heard
his rich, captivating voice can understand why.
Once he gets a hold of you verbally, you cant
help but be moved, Madlock says. Its a great
thing to hear him speak.
Church activities steered him toward Martin Luther King Jr.s
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and eventually
the NAACP. Life in the field of law led him to the Shelby
County Criminal Court, where he became the first black criminal
court judge in Tennessee.
Hooks stepped onto the national political scene in 1972,
when then-President Richard Nixon appointed him to the FCC.
In 1977, he took the helm of the NAACP, a post he would hold
for 15 years.
We won a lot and lost a lot, Hooks says. It
was a highly demanding job. We had a small staff of about
130 individuals scattered across the country, and everything
in the civil rights field came to us. Both the highlights
and the lowlights came from doing so much. There was tension,
Hooks announced his retirement from the NAACP in 1992, but
he still is active at his church and on The U of M campus.
Moreover, he has remained committed to his family and celebrated
his 50th wedding anniversary in 2001.
Throughout his professional career, Hooks had stowed away
a staggering number of documents: papers, court cases, memos
and photographs that total an estimated 750,000 pages. Thats
nearly 400 boxes if the papers could be put into a
single stack, it would be 450 feet tall.
The boxes had been stored in an outside storage shed at Hooks
church until 1999, where humidity and temperature variations
were beginning to take a toll on the documents. The professors
packed up the boxes and moved them to a temperature-controlled
room in Clement Hall and began filing the contents into acid-neutral
Now, two years later, the filing process is almost complete,
but this step is merely phase one in a larger
plan. During phase two, a professional project
archivist will be hired to sort, label and analyze the material.
Phase three will see a construction of a Web site
to house the newly organized material online.
Mason says the archival process will help to further establish
Memphis as an information hub for Civil Rights-era issues.
Memphis is an important site for the Civil Rights Movement,
and not just because Martin Luther King Jr. was killed here,
he says, adding that a possible collaboration is pending with
the National Civil Rights Museum.
It would be a natural match, he says. The
U of M brings a set of academic resources, while the museum
will be able to make the subject matter come alive.
Aside from the Congressional Award, the Institute had applied
for grant money from the National Endowment for the Humanities
(NEH). Though the application was turned down, friends in
Washington D.C. sent warm words praising the Institute.
U.S. Congressman Harold Ford Jr. wrote in strong support
of the Institute, calling it an invaluable tool
and saying that Hooks donated papers document
the extraordinary life of a man dedicated to human rights
and equal justice.
U.S. Senator Fred Thompson (BS 64) also wrote to the
NEH in support, noting that the Hooks Institute will
continue that commitment [to civil rights] at an institution
of higher learning dedicated to the ongoing study of civil
rights issues and social change.
One plan for the near future is to celebrate the 50th anniversary
of Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education in 2004.
The desegregation case is considered a monumental legal breakthrough.
Many of the victories of the movement were legal victories,
Madlock says. The Civil Rights Movement wasnt
just about people protesting in the streets. Dr. Hooks wants
that to be conveyed. He really believes in the legal process.
Whatever the course the Hooks Institute will steer in years
to come, the thirst for knowledge and understanding of the
Civil Rights Movement will be continual. As Madlock says,
Dr. Hooks never slows down, and as Hooks himself
said nearly 20 years ago, we shall press on, we shall
press on, we shall press on.