Speeches & Floor Statements
Posted on April 19, 2010
Madam President, on April 15, Benjamin Hooks died in the city where 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 achievement 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 me, he and his wife Frances were close and good friends.
There will be a funeral service in Memphis on Wednesday. I will attend it and will make remarks there. But I wanted to say a few words about my friend Dr. Hooks on the floor of the Senate today.
Ben Hooks was born January 31, 1925. 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. 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-Owen College in Memphis and graduated from Howard. He served in the U.S. Army. He was a patriot. While in the Army, he learned something more about injustice when he found that some of the prisoners of war 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. 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--that is another Tennessee family, the Haleys--George Haley was able to go to the University of Arkansas at about the 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 choose to go to DePaul University in Chicago, where he received his law degree in 1984, 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 worked together. He lived to see Dr. King go over 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 appointee 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 Presidential Republican ticket. He supported Senator Baker in his races. His wife Frances supported me every time I ran for public office in Tennessee, which has been a lot, five different times. Everybody knew that Frances Hooks would not have been supporting me if Ben Hooks did not know about it. In fact, it is hard to think of Ben Hooks without Frances. I cannot think of a time I talked with him when I did not start with her. She was his sweetheart, his ally, his secretary, his assistant, his adviser, and all of us send to her and her family our thoughts during these days. I talked with her for a few minutes a while ago.
Benjamin Hooks became best known in this country when he was elected executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, in 1976. 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. He delivered sermons for more than half a century. 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 as well as anyone I have ever heard.
One of his most touching speeches was his eulogy at the funeral of a former Tennessee Senator, Albert Gore, Sr., which I heard in Nashville.
In March of 2001, Benjamin and Frances Hooks renewed their wedding vows after almost 50 years of marriage.
In November of 2007, just about 2 1/2 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 helped to establish, in his hometown of Memphis, the Benjamin Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis. In talking with some of the faculty members at that institute a few years ago, one of them said Ben Hooks understands our country is a work in progress. He had seen the hard parts of it. He had seen the injustice of it. Before he died, he was still sad and angry about some of the injustices that exist today. But he had also seen the promise of it as well. Through his lifetime, he had lived through the King days; the sit-ins; the days of the first Black criminal court justice, where it was 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 is why most people go 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 to pay respect to him. One of them 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 will miss Ben Hooks' leadership. We will miss his vision. We will miss his capacity to work with Republicans as well as Democrats. Tennessee has lost one of its most distinguished citizens. But we are grateful for that life, and in Memphis on Wednesday we will celebrate the life of Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks.