Remembering Benjamin Hooks

Civil rights leader moved NAACP headquarters to Baltimore

April 15, 2010|By Kelly Brewington, The Baltimore Sun

To Baltimoreans who knew him best, the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks was more than a civil rights legend, more than a fiery orator who could bring down the house with an effortless blend of Scripture, poetry and humor. He was also an affable mentor who inspired a new generation of NAACP leaders.

Mr. Hooks, who died Thursday in Nashville at the age of 85, was best known for leading the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 16 years. He was also a Baptist preacher, crusading attorney, the first African-American to be appointed a criminal judge in Tennessee and the first to be named to the Federal Communications Commission.

Locally, he was fondly remembered for moving the organization's headquarters from New York to Baltimore in 1986, building ties with local clergy, and encouraging budding civil rights activists to join the struggle.

"He was magnetic," said Roslyn Brock of Elkridge, chairwoman of the NAACP. She has considered Hooks a mentor since she was a young board member in the 1980s and credits his endorsement for helping her win the top post this year. "He wanted us to succeed. There was a cadre of us young activists that he was always offering his counseling and words to live by."

In the 1980s, Baltimore's young activists saw Hooks as not only a mentor but as a father figure.

"For many in my generation, he was a bit more approachable than others," said Kweisi Mfume, who was a student at what is now Morgan State University when he met Mr. Hooks. The pair kept in touch for decades. "He was fun. Ben was always someone to tell jokes and poke fun at himself. At one point, you would be sitting there with someone you revered, and in another moment he was like your dad."

It was Mr. Hooks who later encouraged Mr. Mfume to resign from Congress to take over the helm at the NAACP.

"I called Ben so much for advice," he said. "He was my secret guru when I was there at the organization."

Mr. Hooks inspired with his oratory and wit. But he won civil rights victories by being persuasive and determined. He pushed for more employment opportunities for blacks in Major League Baseball. At the FCC, he fought to expand minority ownership of media outlets. And he persuaded some of the nation's biggest companies to sign diversity agreements to bring more African-Americans into the highest reaches of corporate life.

"He would say he was responsible for the creation of more black millionaires than anyone else in the country," said Ben Jealous, the NAACP's current president and chief executive, who called Mr. Hooks one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century. "And it's probably true. The numbers of black corporate executives who got their start because of him are many."

In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Mr. Hooks the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among the nation's highest civilian honors.

Mr. Hooks, born in 1925 in Memphis, Tenn., was inspired to fight for social change as a young lawyer. After serving in the Army in World War II, he returned to a segregated America in which no Southern law school would admit him. He later earned a law degree from DePaul University in Chicago and opened a practice in Memphis.

Nr. Hooks came to the NAACP — the nation's oldest civil rights organization — in 1977, when the organization was in a time of transition, with dwindling membership, financial troubles and questions about its relevance. Although he battled fiercely with his board at times, by the time he left in 1992, the organization's membership had grown and expenses were down.

Mr. Hooks thought a move to Baltimore, where the organization could buy property instead of enduring sky-high New York rents, would greatly reduce the organization's expenses.

But the decision to move the organization's headquarters was a controversial one, requiring Mr. Hooks to sell the NAACP board on the idea, said former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who met Mr. Hooks in 1986. Mr. Schmoke was running for mayor at the time.

Mr. Hooks worked hard to make the move happen. He also recognized the city's civil rights legacy, from giants of the movement such as Clarence Mitchell Jr. and Thurgood Marshall, to Enolia P. McMillan, who helped sell pies and buttons to finance the move, said Mr. Mfume, a Baltimore City Council member during the NAACP's relocation campaign.

And Baltimore responded with open arms.

"There was always a built-in reverence for the organization here, going back to the days of the greats in the movement," said Mr. Mfume.

"We were probably one of the first national nonprofits to move our headquarters to Baltimore," said J. Howard Henderson, who served as Mr. Hooks' vice president of administration. "He started a trend of others coming here. When I look back on it, the move was beneficial not only for Baltimore but for the NAACP."

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