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The Last Sermon

Benjamin Hooks delivers his last homily as pastor of Greater Middle Baptist Church.

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Rather than preaching the same-old, same-old Bible stories or delivering a fire-and-brimstone tirade, the Rev. Benjamin Hooks used his final sermon as pastor of Greater Middle Baptist Church to speak on the progress of civil rights for African Americans.

"In my lifetime, it's amazing to see a black president," Hooks said. "I remember when you couldn't ride on the front of a streetcar."

But Hooks urged church members and visitors not to get too excited.

"We've come a long way, but there's still a long way to go," said Hooks.

The 83-year-old civil rights leader is retiring after 52 years as pastor of the Greater Middle Baptist Church on Knight-Arnold Road in East Memphis.

His sermon was punctuated with cheers of "Amen!" from the enthusiastic congregation. Church members and numerous visitors, including Congressman Steve Cohen, packed the sanctuary. At one point before Hooks' sermon began, ushers were forced to seat people in extra chairs typically reserved for the choir.

"I felt that the active ministry of the church, with all its joys, was a little too much of a burden," said Hooks, in an interview with the Flyer. "I love preaching, but the demands of preaching every Sunday and being at prayer meetings every Wednesday and the missionary meetings on Thursdays and all the funerals, weddings, and counseling was just a bit too much for me."

Hooks' retirement doesn't mean he'll be slowing down. He says he'll continue practicing law and will stay on as minister-in-residence at his church. In that role, he'll help church members with financial planning, as well as performing home mission work.

Hooks is also an adjunct professor at the University of Memphis' Hooks Institute for Social Change, where he occasionally lectures on civil rights.

"I have already have invitations to speak at other churches if my health allows," Hooks said. "I want to visit other churches for a while so my church doesn't still think I'm still their pastor."

Hooks was one of the first African-American attorneys in Memphis, breaking racial barriers in a white-dominated field. In 1965, he became the first black criminal court judge in Tennessee history. He was a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference along with Dr. Martin Luther King and served as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1977 to 1992.

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