Thursday, April 15, 2010

Benjamin Hooks, 1925-2010. R.I.P.

Benjamin Hooks, best known for his tenure as Executive Director of the NAACP from 1977 to 1992, died today after a long illness. He was 85.

Hooks became a civil rights activists after his experiences serving in Europe during WWII. Given the task of guarding Italian prisoners of war, the POWs were allowed to eat in restaurants but these restaurants were off limits to Hooks and other black soldiers.

Prior to his stewardship of the NAACP, Hooks had a varied career in his native Memphis - minister, entrepreneur, lawyer, criminal court judge (the first African-American to sit on the bench in Tennessee). Whatever his occupation, Hooks was a major player in the civil rights movement.

It is also worth noting that Hooks was a Republican. After supporting Richard Nixon in 1972, Nixon appointed Hooks to the Federal Communications Commission.

However, Hooks soured on the GOP once he led the NAACP. Towards the end of his tenure with the NAACP Hooks commented on Republican administrations:

I’ve had the misfortune of serving eight years under Reagan and three under Bush. It makes a great deal of difference about your expectations. We’ve had to get rid of a lot of programs we had hoped for, so we could fight to save what we already had.

Needless to say, President Reagan saw things differently. Consider an excerpt from this letter he wrote to Hooks in January 1983 (which can be found in the book Reagan: A Life in Letters edited by Kiron Skinner, Annelise Graebner Anderson and Martin Anderson). Reagan was responding to Hooks' assertion his administration was attempting to "roll back hard-won gains of black Americans":

Ben if only it were possible to look into each other's hearts and minds, you would find no trace of prejudice or bigotry in mine. I know that's hard for you to believe and that's too bad because together we could do more for the people you represent than either of us can do alone.

Prejudice is not a failing peculiar to one race, it can and does exist in people of every race and ethnic background. It takes individual effort to root it ou of one's heart. In my case my father and mother saw that it never got a start. I shall be forever grateful to them.


Unfortunately, Reagan's letter was in vain and Hooks would not have a change of heart.

However, this did not stop then President George W. Bush for bestowing Hooks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom back in 2007 for his contributions to the civil rights movement. Bush said, "Dr. Hooks was a calm yet forceful voice for fairness, opportunity and personal responsibility. He never tired or faltered in demanding that our nation live up to its founding ideals of liberty and equality."

No comments: