The Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks announced yesterday his intention to retire as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People after 15 years of leading the nation's oldest and best known civil rights organization.
The announcement that he would step down at the end of this year came in New York at the close of the winter meeting of directors of the NAACP, which has its headquarters in Baltimore.
Dr. Hooks said that at age 67, he "had to make some decision about what I planned to do" and that he wanted to give the organization ample time to choose a successor.
Dr. Hooks took over as executive director and chief operating officer of the NAACP in 1977, succeeding Roy Wilkins. "When I came here in 1977, Jimmy Carter was president, the Supreme Court was responsive, the Congress seemed to be concerned about our plight," Dr. Hooks said in a telephone interview last night.
"I no sooner got here than Reagan became president and the whole climate went backward. I have had a terribly difficult time. I'm proud that we were able to keep the fight going."
Dr. Hooks said the efforts have included not only the traditional work on political and legal fronts but addressing problems in the education of black children.
Last week, for example, Dr. Hooks urged the nation's blacks not to buy Japanese cars because of what he termed reluctance among Japanese automakers to establish black-owned dealerships or to build plants in inner cities in the United States.
Last night, Dr. Hooks said he had a five-page list of what he viewed as major accomplishments by the NAACP during his tenure, and he cited among the most important its programs in dozens of cities to encourage academic excellence, keep at-risk youths in school, and achieve "fair-share agreements" for minority hiring by major industries and businesses.
A pilot program was announced in December between the NAACP and the newly formed NationsBank Corp. to establish community development offices that will promote lending to minorities and small businesses in several states. The program will offer blacks a chance "to become fully involved in the business of America," Dr. Hooks said at the time.
After his speech at the board meeting yesterday, Dr. Hooks received a three-minute standing ovation, said James D. Williams, chief spokesman for the organization.
"I think it was a surprise, although they knew that he'd been talking about planning to leave," Mr. Williams said.
A lawyer, judge and Baptist preacher, Dr. Hooks in 1972 became the first black member of the Federal Communications Commission. He has lived in Baltimore with his wife, Frances, since the NAACP moved its national headquarters here five years ago. Dr. Hooks said he would be "working as hard as ever" while the organization begins its search for his successor. "That's one of the unfortunate parts of this job -- there's no way to slow down, no such thing as slowing down."