Benjamin L. Hooks, civil rights attorney, minister, judge, and executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was born in Memphis, the son of Robert B. and Bessie Hooks and the grandson of Julia Britton and Charles Hooks. Young Hooks grew up working at his father's Hooks Brothers photography studios, located of Beale Street, one of the city's oldest black businesses. He graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1941 and attended LeMoyne College and Howard University before joining the army in 1943, rising to the rank of staff sergeant as he served in Italy. Leaving the service in 1946, Hooks attended DePaul University in Chicago, where he received his J.D. degree in 1948.
Hooks returned to Memphis and entered private practice. In 1955 he became the cofounder and later chairman of the Mutual Federal Savings and Loan Association. The next year, he added the title Reverend to his name as he became the pastor of Greater Middle Baptist Church, a position he continues to hold. He would later also pastor (1964-94) the Greater New Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Detroit. He joined other African American ministers in the Civil Rights movement and served on the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for ten years.
In 1959 Hooks announced his candidacy for juvenile court judge, running on the Volunteer ticket with Russell Sugermon, Reverend Henry Buntyn, and Reverend Roy Love. Despite a vigorous campaign and a strong effort to register black voters, Hooks and his fellow candidates lost the election. Two years later, Hooks joined the public defender's office, where he served until 1964. In 1965 Governor Frank G. Clement appointed Hooks to the judgeship of the new Criminal Court Division IV, making him the first African American to hold such a post in Tennessee since Reconstruction. In 1966 Hooks won election to an eight-year term in the office. In a 1967 interview with the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Judge Hooks outlined his views on civil rights and the long, hot summers of the late 1960s. While expressing his empathy with the frustrations of young African Americans who were taking to the streets, he stated his firm belief in nonviolent direct action as the means of achieving change. He practiced what he preached as a board director of the Southern Regional Leadership Conference from 1968 to 1972.
In 1972 President Richard M. Nixon appointed Hooks to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the first African American appointed to the agency. During his service, Hooks made good his promise to voice his criticism of media presentations of minorities in stereotypical roles. He repeatedly chastised broadcasters for their disregard of black cultural events and their failure to air African American news. Broadcasters worried that Hooks would advance to chair the FCC following the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976. Hooks, however, resigned his position on the FCC to succeed Roy Wilkins as executive director of the NAACP.
During his years as executive director (1977-93), Hooks worked to increase the membership, financial standing, and prominence of the NAACP in a time of severe setbacks for African Americans and their quest for civil rights. Under Hooks's leadership, the NAACP launched ACT-SO, the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technical, Scientific Olympics, to foster academic excellence. He championed African American inclusion in American corporate offices and continued to press for voter registration and participation. For his lifetime commitment to civil rights, Hooks received numerous awards, including honorary doctorates from Howard University, Wilberforce University, and Central State University, as well as the 1986 Spingarn Award, the NAACP's highest honor.
After retiring from the directorship of the NAACP, Hooks returned to Memphis, where he served as founding chair of the National Civil Rights Museum and continues to pastor and lecture on the Civil Rights movement. Hooks is married to the former Frances Dancy. They are the parents of one daughter, Patricia Gray. In 1976 the Memphis Round Table of the National Conference of Christians and Jews awarded its Sixteenth Annual Brotherhood Award jointly to Benjamin and Frances Hooks, honoring the couple for their “tireless dedication to the vision of a society in which goodwill in the human family prevails both in attitude and behavior.” (1)