Alexander Honors Life of Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks

“We’ll miss Ben Hooks’ leadership. We’ll miss his vision. We’ll miss his capacity to work with both Republicans as well as Democrats. Tennessee has lost one of its most distinguished citizens but we’re grateful for that life.” – Lamar Alexander

Posted on April 19, 2010

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today delivered the following remarks on the floor of the U.S. Senate honoring the life of Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks:

“On April 15th, Benjamin Hooks died in the city there he was born 85 years ago, the city of Memphis. Later this afternoon, Senator Burris, Senator Corker and I will introduce a resolution honoring the life and achievements of Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks.

“Benjamin Hooks was certainly one of Tennessee’s most distinguished citizens and one of America’s leaders in this last half century. He was a patriot, a family man, a visionary, a lawyer, a storyteller, a preacher. And for my wife and I, he and his wife Frances were close and good friends. There will be a funeral service in Memphis on Wednesday. I will attend it, will make remarks there, but I wanted to say just a few words about my friend, Dr. Hooks, on the floor of the Senate today.

“Ben Hooks was born January 31st, 85 years ago. He leaves his wife Frances and his daughter, Patricia Gray, and two grandsons. He was the fifth of seven children born to Robert B. and Bessie Hooks. And right from the beginning, he was part of a pioneering family. He was the grandson of Julia Hooks, the second black woman in the United States to graduate from college. Young Ben Hooks went on to LeMoyne in Memphis and graduated from Howard. He served in the United States Army. He was a patriot. And while in the Army, he learned something more about injustice when he found that some of the prisoners of war that he guarded had more rights than he did to eat in a restaurant. His pioneering continued when he went back home to Memphis after the war.

“First, he had to get a law degree, and at that time, no Tennessee law school would accept an African-American law student. It was the same in Arkansas. I remember George Haley, the brother of Alex Haley, was able to go to the University of Arkansas at about this same time and was required to sit by himself in a separate room because they simply didn’t know what to do with an African-American student. Ben hooks chose to go to DePaul University in Chicago, where he received his law degree in 1948 and came back to Memphis.

“He kept pioneering. He was one of the few African-American lawyers to set up his own practice in Memphis. He was appointed to the Shelby County Criminal Court by Governor Frank Clement of Tennessee in 1965, making him the first black criminal court judge in the history of our state. He and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., worked together, and he lived to see Dr. King go from being someone who was reviled to someone who was honored by having a national holiday in his name. In 1972, Benjamin Hooks became the first black appointed to the Federal Communications Commission. That was at the recommendation of Senator Howard Baker, a Republican senator, and a Republican president, Richard Nixon.

“Ben Hooks was able to support leaders of both parties. He supported the 1972 Republican presidential ticket. He supported Senator Baker in his races, and his wife Frances supported me every time I ran for office in Tennessee, which has been a lot—five different times—and everybody knew that Frances Hooks wouldn’t have been supporting me if Ben Hooks didn’t know about it. In fact, it’s hard to think of Ben Hooks without Frances. I can’t think of a time that I talked with him that I didn’t start with her. She was his sweetheart, his ally, his secretary, his assistant, his advisor, and all of us send to her and to her family our thoughts during these days. I talked with her for a few minutes just a while ago.

“Benjamin Hooks became best known in this country when he was elected executive director of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1976, and he served in that role until 1992. During that time, the NAACP grew by hundreds of thousands of members due to Ben Hooks’ leadership. Ben Hooks was an ordained minister and he delivered sermons for more than a half century, and they were sermons well worth hearing.

“Ben Hooks had the combined gifts of a Southern preacher, a Southern lawyer, and a Southern politician, and he could turn a phrase and turn the audience inside-out and upside-down with his phrases just as well as any that I’ve ever heard. One of his most touching speeches was his eulogy at the funeral of a former senator, Albert Gore, Sr., which I heard in Nashville.

“Ben and Frances renewed their wedding vows after almost 50 years of marriage. In November 2007, just about two and half years ago, Benjamin Hooks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, by President George W. Bush. He has helped to establish in his hometown of Memphis the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis. In talking with some of the faculty members at this institute a few years ago, one of them said that Ben Hooks understands that our country was a work in progress. He’d seen the hard parts of it. He’d seen the injustice of it.

“Before he died, he was still sad and angry about some of the injustice that exists today. But he had also seen the promise of it as well. And through his lifetime, he lived through the King days, the sit-ins, the days of the first black criminal court justice, a time where it became commonplace for African-Americans to graduate from law school, the election of the first African-American president, the rise of the NAACP—Ben Hooks saw the great promise of American life.

“After he was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 2007 by the president, I hosted a lunch for him in the Senate dining room downstairs. Those who come to the senators’ dining room are accustomed to seeing distinguished visitors. In fact, that’s why most people go to the senators’ dining room, to be seen. But that day, Ben Hooks took over the dining room. He was by far the most distinguished visitor there. Some very well-known people came by to pay respect to him. One of those was the late Jack Kemp who worked with Dr. Hooks on civil rights issues for many years. But the greatest commotion was caused by the people who work in the senators’ dining room, those who serve, those who wait tables, those who cook in the kitchen. They all wanted to shake Ben Hooks’ hand. They wanted to say hello to him. They wanted his autograph. And most wanted his picture.

“We’ll miss Ben Hooks’ leadership. We’ll miss his vision. We’ll miss his capacity to work with both Republicans as well as Democrats. Tennessee has lost one of its most distinguished citizens but we’re grateful for that life. And in Memphis on Wednesday, we will celebrate the life of Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks.”