Frances Hooks, wife of NAACP's director, is the group's national coordinator of women


October 06, 1991|By Mary Corey

Before Frances Hooks let her husband Benjamin spar with senators during the Clarence Thomas hearings, she waged her own early morning battle with the NAACP's executive director.

This one concerned a matter of style: Ms. Hooks, you see, couldn't stand her husband's tie.

It was undeniably floral.

How could the country's pre-eminent civil rights leader convince the Capitol Hill gang not to confirm Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas wearing flowers on his tie, she wondered.

One look at his outfit and she knew it would never work. Within minutes, Mr. Hooks was back to the rack in search of her preference -- a more somber burgundy pattern.

"The goal is to make Ben Hooks look good," she says wryly, "so I buy all his clothes."

Buys his clothes, keeps his schedule, handles his mail, pays his bills . . .

For the last 40 years, she has been his right-hand woman, acting as appointment secretary, confidante, gatekeeper and friend. In recent years, however, she's emerged as a leader herself, bringing issues facing African-American women to the fore as National Coordinator of Women in the NAACP (WIN).

At the moment, nothing reflects her hectic life better than her office in Northwest Baltimore. The room is filled with photos of Ms. Hooks with celebrities she's met: Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump, Gen. Colin Powell. But at 7:30 on a Friday night, she notices none of it. Instead, she's in the midst of about five different projects. Telephone messages are taped to her desk, a letter's up on her computer screen, mail must be answered and a cigarette wastes away in an ashtray.

Her husband, whose office is next door, interrupts to ask if a bill has been paid, and the two go over their business itinerary for the next week: Detroit; Los Angeles; Las Vegas, Nev.; Sacramento, Calif.; Hartford, Conn.; St. Louis; and Memphis, Tenn.

It sounds -- and looks -- like mayhem, but 64-year-old Frances Hooks assures you it's just another Friday night.

What makes her move at a pace that would wear out women half her age?

"When we were first married, I made a vow that I would love and honor him," she says. "I always felt it was my role to be supportive. A lot of people say 'There she is, his shadow' . . . but I try to walk beside him."

During the last four years, she has found her own path, directing roughly 1,000 WIN members across the country. Each of the 200 groups sets its own agenda -- focusing on issues such as teen pregnancy, black history and AIDS -- but meets regularly for workshops and conferences.

Since taking over, she's earned a reputation as a master planner and recruiter.

"This gave her a specific purpose beyond being Mrs. Benjamin Hooks," says Mildred Roxborough, an NAACP executive and longtime friend. "She's taken the goals and purposes of the NAACP from the perspective of minority women. . . . She's also made it difficult to say no to her."

Outspoken and opinionated, Ms. Hooks is currently speaking out against the trend toward all-male classes in public schools. "When you do that, you're saying black women are not important," she says. "You're teaching these kids not to respect the black [woman] teacher . . . and then you're making it hard for them to respect their mothers."

While her husband's high-profile career -- as lawyer, judge, Baptist preacher and FCC commissioner -- has given her a venue to express her views, it's also had its drawbacks. "We've lived in a glass house since 1966," she says with a sigh. "You have to be so careful of everything you do. Everyone's watching you. That's why I tell these kids who aspire to go into office: 'Keep your nose clean.' Before I was a preacher's wife, I used to love to dance . . . but as a minister's wife my role was to be the personification of someone who is steeped in religion."

She pauses a moment to let the words settle. Tonight, like many nights since the NAACP headquarters moved to Baltimore five years ago, she'll sleep in the bedroom down the corridor from their offices. The couple have an apartment in Park Heights, but with a long business trip ahead, they both need to work until exhaustion takes over.

"I sometimes wonder what life would be like outside this cocoon," she says. "I think I would be very, very happy to go sit on the porch [of my Memphis condo] and watch the muddy Mississippi."

Life has also brought its share of hardships. In 1975, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. When she reaches for her cigarette now, you can see how the disease has caused her fingers to curl. During that same year, her mother suffered a stroke; she never talked or walked again. Ms. Hooks spent the next 16 years caring for her mother, who died last spring.

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