In His Own Words: Benjamin Hooks AS TOLD TO MICHAEL FLETCHER

January 17, 1993|By MICHALE FLETHER

Benjamin Hooks' resonant voice is tinged with concern, pride and frustration. He is reflecting on his 16-year reign over the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and on the challenges looming in the group's future.

Since succeeding the redoubtable Roy Wilkins as executive director, Mr. Hooks has battled fiercely, perhaps sometimes futilely, to keep civil rights at the top of the American agenda. Now, even as 67-year-old Mr. Hooks prepares to retire, he finds he must still fight -- this time to define his legacy.

Attacks have come from all sides. Critics have said the NAACP is obsessed with a racial agenda, which some consider outdated in post-civil-rights-era America. Also, increasing numbers of blacks have criticized the NAACP as being irrelevant to their contemporary struggles. Most blatant forms of racism have been eradicated, so some blacks want the NAACP to adopt a new agenda of fighting drugs, preventing crime and boosting economic opportunity.

NAACP supporters bristle and call these critics shortsighted; civil-rights advances are continuously under assault and vigilance is needed to protect them from deteriorating, they say.

Mr. Hooks says he's a living example of the strides made for African-Americans by the NAACP. Born poor in Memphis, Tenn., he was raised in the church, trained in law, and steeped in civil rights. He ran a dry cleaners and a savings and loan, and founded a firm that sold canned soul-food vegetables. And he was a partner in the Mahalia Jackson Chicken Co., a fast-food chain in the Midwest and South that grew to 100 stores before going bankrupt in the 1960s.

Mr. Hooks was appointed judge of the Shelby County Criminal Court in Tennessee in 1965. In 1972, he was appointed to the Federal Communications Commission by President Richard M. Nixon. He left the commission in 1977 to move to the NAACP.

The critics and the years may have worn him down a bit, but Mr. Hooks lights his own way with the torch of memory. During five interviews for this story, he broached many topics and answered countless inquiries. But he never strayed far from his concern about this generation's eagerness to disregard the past in its rush to the future.

"I was speaking recently at the University of Colorado and a young man who is a law student came up to me," Mr. Hooks recalls as he leans back in a leather chair in his office at the NAACP's headquarters in Baltimore. "He wanted to know whether the NAACP had an economic program."

"I pointed out that the NAACP's economic program has been in place for many years," says Mr. Hooks, his voice warming with the memory and rolling with the cadences of fiery Baptist preaching, yet tempered with a preciseness honed, no doubt, by his legal training.

"We have signed more than 60 Fair Share agreements, which get large corporations to do business with minority companies. I can count some 2 or 3 million jobs that black folks have because of the work of the NAACP that they didn't have a chance for years ago. Policemen, firemen, clerks in county offices, cashiers in banks, loan officers . . . highway patrolmen, in-house security jobs. I'm not talking about people with triple degrees.

" . . . For some reason, when I said all that, the young man was a little impatient. I don't know why. . . . The tragedy was that here was a young college man who had never read about these things because, somehow, we don't have the ability to tell that story."

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"WHEN I ANNOUNCED I was going to retire, there was so much criticism.

"I was beaten from pillar to post. Everybody came out of the woodwork saying what I had not done.

"One guy said I had not carried the legacy like Dr. King or Malcolm.

"But Dr. King was shunned by as many black folks as anybody in this country. Whole conventions [of clergymen] said, 'Don't let him preach in your church.' Backward, mediocre people didn't want anything to do with him until the end. But, now, they want to give you the impression that somehow when he spoke everybody listened and did what he said. It just wasn't true. He had more supporters the day he died than he ever did in life.

"When all this criticism came, it hurt deep. I thought I had done a good job. I felt like I had gone way beyond the call of duty. I kept the NAACP alive.

"In the nearly 16 years I've been here, there has not been a single anti-civil-rights bill passed, even with all the hostility of the Reagan-Bush years.

"Every time Reagan stuck his head up, we knocked him down. When he tried to get tax-exempt status for Bob Jones University [which was not tax-exempt because it practiced racial discrimination], we knocked it down. So now you say, what has that got to do with anything? It means this: If Reagan got away with that, then all these die-hard segregationists could be getting tax-exempt money to build stronger fortresses.

"How do you make that mean something for somebody walking around mad on a street corner because he doesn't have a job?"

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