Jurist, lawyer, fabled minister, and icon of the civil rights movement, the Rev. Benjamin Hooks was as universally beloved a figure, both in Memphis and in the world at large, as it was possible to be. He was that rare figure revered by whites and blacks alike and claimed by both major political parties. Moreover, in a remarkable act of simultaneous ministry, he was claimed as pastor by congregations in two cities — Memphis and Detroit.
Hooks' death last week at the age of 85 creates an absence that no other single figure can fill. And beyond his massive body of achievements was a personal good will, even a beatitude, that will crown his legacy.
Hooks, who pastored the Greater Middle Baptist Church in Southeast Memphis, straddled the Memphis scene and the world stage and managed always to be a commanding figure in each. In 2007, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.
A native of Memphis, Hooks attended Booker T. Washington High School, LeMoyne College, and Howard University in Washington, D.C. During World War II, he served with the 92nd Infantry Division in Italy. After the war, he earned a law degree from DePaul University in Chicago and, in 1948, began practicing law in Memphis. Ultimately, after being appointed a Criminal Court judge by then Governor Frank Clement in 1965, he won election to a full term in 1966.
Meanwhile, he had become a central figure in desegregation efforts — again, both locally and nationally. In the aftermath of the epochal 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision banning school desegregation, Hooks joined forces with the NAACP's Thurgood Marshall to pursue further advances, and he became a trusted associate of Dr. Martin Luther King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In 1972, Hooks was appointed to the Federal Communications Commission by President Richard Nixon, becoming its first African-American member. He relinquished that post in 1977 to become executive director of the NAACP, heading that organization until 1992. In 1986, he received the NAACP's highest honor, the Spingarn Medal.
Active at various times in both the Republican and Democratic parties, Hooks was given the rare opportunity to address both national party conventions in 1980. He was the acknowledged patriarch, not only of other members of the extended Hooks family, who achieved local office, but of several generations of African Americans in politics. Nor were his friendship and influence limited to a single race: The outpouring of posthumous accolades from all major Tennessee officeholders and from innumerable other public figures in the nation demonstrated that.
Any statewide politician seeking to hold office in Tennessee knew that a courtesy call on Rev. Hooks was a de rigueur matter. Simply put, Benjamin Hooks was the great conciliator, whose influence derived not primarily from his numerous offices and honors but from his principled and compassionate moral leadership.
After an all-day period of visitation on Tuesday, Hooks' funeral on Wednesday of this week, pending at press time, was due to be attended by the kind of multitudes who normally take note only at the passing of exceptional secular leaders or great religious figures. Ben Hooks was both of those.