Dr. Benjamin Hooks: Diversity Founding Father
On November 7, 2007, Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks, legendary civil rights leader, former NAACP executive director, and current head of Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs LLP’s diversity practice group in its Memphis office, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony at the White House. “When the president called for Frances, my wife of over 55 years, to join me as I received the award [our nation’s highest civilian honor], it was the proudest moment of my life,” says Hooks.
Dr. Benjamin Hooks
Lauded for a life of service, hard work, and accomplishment shaped by an unyielding passion for justice, Hooks says, “Most of my career decisions have been driven by racial conflict. After two and a half years spent in a fully segregated army during World War II, I embraced more fully the concept that we could not live as a nation as things stood. Henceforth, I made my mind up to do what I could to bring about change, and I knew that it had to come from within the South.”
The fifth of seven children, Hooks grew up in a middle-class Memphis family where education was valued. “My father was a successful photographer, and his studio was in a professional building where I was exposed to an [African American] doctor, dentist, and lawyer,” says Hooks. “Because my talents tended more toward the liberal arts, I decided as a teenager to pursue a career in the legal profession.”
After graduating from DePaul University Law School in Chicago in 1949 (no law school in the South would admit him), rather than accept the assistance of a well-connected family friend and take a legal position in the Windy City, Hooks returned home to join the struggle as one of the two black attorneys then practicing in Memphis. “While Martin Luther King Jr. and Floyd Abernathy were trained in other areas, the movement had a pressing need for black attorneys; there were so few of us at that time.”
“During all those years of fervent segregation and racial prejudice that I spent in those courts, there was never a time that I felt that I had lost a case because I was black or because the judges were not fair,” recalls Hooks. In 1965, against much local protest, Hooks was appointed to serve as a criminal judge in Shelby County, Memphis. “After all the hell that was raised regarding my appointment by some sectors, not one lawyer or judge demonstrated disrespect toward me while I was on the bench,” he adds. “There was that much respect for the judgeship.”
Seated, left to right: Tom Dyer, Dr. Hooks, Glen Reid; standing, left to right: Bill Hollander, Cheryl Patterson, Odell Horton, and Bob Craddock.
As well as being a legal professional, Hooks has been an early leader of NAACP-sponsored boycotts and sit-ins; an entrepreneur who pushed for economic parity for African Americans; and an ordained minister. In 1972, Hooks was tapped to fill an opening on the Federal Communications Commission, where he made great strides in opening the industry to minorities and women. He successfully expanded the NAACP as its director from 1977 until he retired in 1993 to a career of public speaking.
In 2002, just when Hooks was about to call it quits professionally, he joined Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, a full-service regional law firm with more than 230 lawyers. Despite some health problems, he remains a very valuable resource on matters that primarily include issues about diversity, both to Wyatt and its clients.
Today, when Hooks looks at his Medal of Freedom, he reflects what his friend Dr. King might think: “I’m certain he’d be happy with the progress we’ve made, and unhappy with how much further we have to go.” DB
MCCA Celebrates African American History Month by honoring Dr. Hooks and the many pioneers who have paved the way for countless lawyers of every race, ethnicity, and national origin.
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the January/February 2008 issue of Diversity & The Bar®