17th Annual MLK Celebration Keynote
Dr. Benjamin Hooks
Executive director, NAACP (1977-1992)
Benjamin Lawson Hooks (January 31, 1925 – April 15, 2010) was an American civil rights leader. A Baptist minister and practicing attorney, he served as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 1977 to 1992, and throughout his career was a vocal campaigner for civil rights in the United States.
After graduating in 1944 from Howard University, he joined the Army and had the job of guarding Italian prisoners of war. He found it humiliating that the prisoners were allowed to eat in restaurants from which he was barred. He was discharged from the Army after the end of the war with the rank of staff sergeant.
After the war he enrolled at the DePaul University College of Law in Chicago to study law. No law school in his native Tennessee would admit him. He graduated from DePaul in 1948 with his Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree.
Upon graduation Hooks immediately returned to his native Memphis. By this time he was thoroughly committed to breaking down the practices of racial segregation that existed in the United States. Fighting prejudice at every turn, he passed the Tennessee bar exam and set up his own law practice. "At that time you were insulted by law clerks, excluded from white bar associations and when I was in court, I was lucky to be called Ben," he recalled in an interview with Jet magazine. "Usually it was just ‘boy.’ [But] the judges were always fair. The discrimination of those days has changed and, today, the South is ahead of the North in many respects in civil rights progress." In 1949 Hooks was one of only a few black lawyers in Memphis.
He joined Martin Luther King Jr., and other leaders, at the initial January 1957 Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration, which organized itself, by August, as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), with whom he became an active participant in the NAACP-sponsored restaurant sit-ins and other boycotts of consumer items and services.
On November 6, 1976, the 64-member board of directors of the NAACP elected Hooks executive director of the organization.