Remembering Benjamin Hooks

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."

Mr. Henderson, now the executive director of the Maryland Urban League, said he spoke to Mr. Hooks at least once a month up until his death. Mr. Hooks, Mr. Henderson said, formed strong bonds with Baltimore mayors William Donald Schaefer and Mr. Schmoke, and with city residents.

"His personality was one of being the voice of reason in the community," Mr. Henderson said. "That's how we connected. That's what I try to do with the Urban League: Be a leader, not a rabble-rouser, and bring about solutions [to problems] that face us in the community."

Mr. Schmoke spent the past decade working as a board member with Mr. Hooks in a nonprofit organization designed to help children suffering from lead paint poisoning and other health issues.

"He put a lot of energy, time and thought into the matter," Mr. Schmoke said. "It was quite an inspiration to work with him on that. It was an example of a man not resting on his laurels."

Mr. Schmoke said a highlight of his mayoral stint was naming a street in Mr. Hooks' honor.

"One of the many fun days of my tenure was dedicating Ben Hooks Way," Mr. Schmoke said of the road located near North Avenue. "He always said he had many keys to the city but not a street sign."

Mr. Hooks was jovial, down to earth and connected instantly with Baltimore's religious leaders, using their congregations to help boost NAACP membership, said the Rev. Marion C. Bascom, pastor emeritus at Douglas Memorial Community Church.

"We were inspired to give him our support," he said. "He met with pastors at strategic points and worked with them a lot. Whenever he needed a voice in this community, we were there."

Mr. Hooks was dedicated to his job, and at one point he and his wife, Frances, took up residence in the NAACP's Northwest Baltimore headquarters. He left an impression on young staffers and volunteers who followed his footsteps as an advocate for social justice.

Marge Green started as a volunteer in the national office and didn't expect to stay long. But she remained at the organization for a decade, eventually rising to become a national board member, largely because of Mr. Hooks' influence, she said. He mingled with rank-and-file employees, offered freebies to volunteers instead of saving them for bosses, and took time to get to know everyone, she said.

"He called me Dr. Green — he wanted to make a minister out of me," she said. "He was always so encouraging.

Baltimore NAACP branch President Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham said he did not know Mr. Hooks personally, but his work on the national level had a trickle-down effect on smaller chapters across the country. Mr. Cheatham said Mr. Hooks introduced corporate fundraising, which helped chapter presidents raise money locally.

Mr. Cheatham also praised Mr. Hooks' work with Major League Baseball. "You saw an increase in managing, and blacks getting into more roles than just playing on the baseball field."

Mr. Cheatham said he has approached city schools CEO Andres Alonso about devoting a day to teach students about the NAACP leader who called Baltimore home for a time.

"He was the impetus that brought me to the organization. I wasn't really that hyped-up about the NAACP," Mr. Cheatham said. "When he came in, the membership and image had gone down. He brought both back up."

Although Mr. Hooks was frail during one of his last public appearances, at the NAACP's centennial celebration last summer, his speech was legendary, said Mr. Jealous. During the speech, Mr. Hooks praised the historic election of President Barack Obama but also urged the crowd never to give up the fight for equality.

"He was wheeled out in a wheelchair, looking pretty frail," Mr. Jealous said. "But he grabbed the lectern and gave this incredible sermon. That's the way it was with Dr. Hooks. He had the heart of a young warrior for justice."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Hooks' accomplishments
— NAACP executive director 1977-92.
—First black criminal court judge in Tennessee.
—As the first African-American named to Federal Communications Commission, pushed for minority employment in the media and ownership of media outlets.
—Pushed for better employment opportunities for blacks in Major League Baseball.
—Encouraged major corporations to sign agreements with the NAACP to hire and promote minorities

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