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Former NAACP Chief Benjamin Hooks Dies

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks has died after a long illness. He was a lawyer, a minister, a criminal court judge and he led the NAACP from 1977 to 1993.

In 2007, Benjamin Hooks received the nation's highest civilian honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

NPR's Allison Keyes has this remembrance.

ALLISON KEYES: The current chairman of the board of the NAACP, Roslyn Brock, recalls Hooks as a phenomenal leader.

Ms. ROSLYN BROCK (Chairman, Board of Directors, NAACP): He was very, very personable, insightful and really, really serious about the business of civil rights and social justice in this nation.

KEYES: Hooks says fighting for civil rights was in his genes. Hooks was born in 1925 in segregated Memphis, Tennessee. His grandmother was involved with the NAACP after it was founded in 1909. Hooks told NPR he wanted to follow the family tradition.

Mr. BENJAMIN HOOKS (Former Executive Director, NAACP): I had made up my mind at some point that I wanted to use my life to batter down the wrongs of segregation.

KEYES: After returning from a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, Hooks earned a law degree then joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. An ordained Baptist minister, Hooks marched and sponsored sit-ins and became the first black criminal court judge in Tennessee.

In 1972, Hooks became the first black appointee to the Federal Communications Commission and fought to increase ownership of TV and radio stations among people of color.

Professor RON WALTERS (Government and Politics, University of Maryland): He was, I think, understanding that blacks were making progress coming out of the civil rights movement, so he wanted to focus on things that were not yet done.

KEYES: Those things included poverty and education, says political analyst Ron Walters, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland. So when Hooks became the NAACP's executive director in 1977, Hooks says he wanted to make sure the group wasn't focused solely on the middle class.

Prof. WALTERS: He saw fit to go back in a way and serve his community.

Reverend JESSE JACKSON SR. (Civil Rights Activist): He never stopped fighting.

KEYES: Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson Sr. recalls Hooks as a friendly, funny man who not only fought for the right to vote but also taught people to use that right responsibly.

Many credit Hooks with helping the organization survive questions about its relevancy and focus before he left in 1993.

Jackson says young people should remember that Hooks fought for rights many now take for granted.

Rev. JACKSON: You can now go to use a hotel or motel, or park, a library. Ben helped to knock down that wall. Ben helped knock down walls for this generation to walk across bridges.

KEYES: On the Web page of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change is a quote from Hooks: We've come a long way, but it's like nibbling the edges of darkness.

Hooks was 85 years old.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Keyes is an award-winning journalist with almost 20 years of experience in print, radio, and television. She has been reporting for NPR's national desk since October 2005. Her reports can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition Sunday.

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