Benjamin L. Hooks, who graduated from the DePaul University College of Law in 1948, grew up in an America marked by racism and injustice. Determined to change it, he spent his life fighting for equality. A highly respected champion of civil rights and one of the College of Law’s outstanding alumni, Hooks died April 15 in Memphis, Tenn.
Though his work would take him back to Tennessee and later to Washington, D.C., Hooks remained connected to the College of Law throughout his lifetime. The law school honored his outstanding service to the field of public interest law in 2003, and he earned an honorary degree at the law school’s 1977 commencement ceremony. Recognition for a career and achievements that defied the odds.
According to his official biography provided by the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis, Hooks first began his study of jurisprudence by enrolling in a pre-law course at LeMyone College in Memphis. He joined the United States Army before completing his studies and was stationed overseas. This experience made him determined to champion the cause of civil rights when he found himself charged with guarding Italian prisoners who were allowed to eat in restaurants that would deny him service. He rose to the rank of staff sergeant before his tour of duty ended and returned state side to complete his undergraduate studies at Howard University.
With a desire to become an attorney, Hooks returned to Tennessee. However, what he experienced upon moving back to Memphis was the true meaning of bigotry in the South. No law school in his native state of Tennessee would admit him. So Hooks moved north to attend law school at DePaul University.
“DePaul gave him an opportunity to go to law school when others would not admit him because of his race,” said College of Law Professor Bruce Ottley. Ottley knew Hooks and had the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with him over dinner during one of Hooks’ visits to Chicago and the College of Law. “He was qualified and his G.I. Bill would pay his tuition so his race really did not matter to DePaul.”
After earning his law degree in 1948, Hooks went back to Memphis and embarked on a storied legal career that would earn him a place among of our nation’s most celebrated civil rights advocates.
He first opened a law practice where, according to his biography, he met with prejudice at every turn. This only made him more determined to work to ensure all people are treated equally. He became an ordained minister in 1956 and joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was headed by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. His work in civil rights intensified as he helped pioneer National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)-sponsored sit-ins at restaurants and boycotts of consumer services and merchandise.
While becoming a stronger and more vocal advocate for racial justice, Hooks also began to explore the world of politics, where he would shatter racial barriers. In 1965, he was appointed to fill a judicial vacancy in the Shelby County criminal court, becoming Tennessee’s first African American criminal court judge. In 1976, he became the first African American appointed to the Federal Communications Commission. While there, he was outspoken about such issues as the lack of minority ownership of radio and television stations and the image of minorities in mass media.
In 1976, he was elected executive director of the NAACP, one of this nation’s most respected civil rights organizations. In an interview with Ebony Magazine shortly after assuming leadership of the NAACP, Hooks proclaimed, “The civil rights movement is not dead. If anyone thinks that we are going to stop agitating, they had better think again. If anyone thinks we are going to stop litigating, they had better close the courts.”
Even after his retirement from the NAACP, following 15 years at its helm, Hooks continued to be a formidable champion of civil rights. He trained his sights on contemporary issues impacting minorities and the disadvantaged. To progress this goal, he helped create the Hooks Institute.
One of his final national honors was being awarded the Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in 2007. But, no matter where his accomplished life took him, Hooks always remained one of the College of Law’s most sterling examples of what it means to persevere.
“Benjamin Hooks was a true role model who lived a life that illustrates for our students what they can accomplish no matter what obstacles try and stop them,” said Ottley. “People can look at graduates like Hooks and know that no matter what your background, you can still achieve whatever you want if you get a good education.”