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. State Rep. Ulysses Jones, a member of the church where Hooks was pastor, said Hooks died at his home following a long illness.
Hooks took over as the NAACP’s executive director at a time when the organization’s stature had diminished in 1977. 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.
By the time he left as executive director in 1992, the group had rebounded, with membership growing by several hundred thousand. He used community radiothons to raise awareness of local NAACP branches’ work and to boost membership.
Hooks’ inspiration to fight social injustice and bigotry stemmed from his experience guarding Italian prisoners of war while serving overseas in the Army during World War II. Foreign prisoners were allowed to eat in “for whites only” restaurants while he was barred from them.
In 1965 Hooks was appointed to a newly created seat on the Tennessee Criminal Court, making him the first black judge since Reconstruction in a state trial court anywhere in the South.
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