NASHVILLE — Civil rights leader Benjamin L. Hooks, who shrugged off courtroom slurs as a young lawyer before earning a pioneering judgeship and later reviving a flagging NAACP, died Thursday in Memphis. He was 85.
Across the country, political leaders and Hooks' peers in the civil rights movement remembered his remarkably wide-ranging accomplishments and said he'd want the fight for social justice to continue. State Rep. Ulysses Jones, a member of the church where Hooks was pastor, said Hooks died at his home following a long illness.
"Our national life is richer for the time Dr. Hooks spent on this earth," President Obama said in a statement. "And our union is more perfect for the way he spent it: Giving a voice to the voiceless."
Hooks took over as the NAACP's executive director in 1977 at a time when the organization's stature had diminished. Years removed from the civil rights battles of the 1960s, the group was $1 million in debt and its membership had shrunk to 200,000 members from nearly a half-million a decade earlier.
"Black Americans are not defeated," he told Ebony magazine soon after his induction. "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 that we are going to stop litigating, they had better close the courts. If anyone thinks that we are not going to demonstrate and protest, they had better roll up the sidewalks."
By the time he left as executive director in 1992, the group had rebounded, with membership growing by several hundred thousand.
As a young man, when no law school in the South would admit him, he used the GI bill to attend DePaul University in Chicago, where he earned a law degree in 1948. He later opened his own law practice in his hometown of Memphis.
"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 once said in an interview with Jet magazine. "Usually it was just 'boy.' "
In his last keynote speech to an NAACP national convention in 1992, Hooks urged members who had found financial success to never forget those less fortunate.
"Remember," he said, "that down in the valley where crime abounds and dope proliferates... where babies are having babies, our brothers and sisters are crying to us, 'Is anyone listening? Does anyone care?' "