MEMPHIS, Tenn. – After years of fighting for social justice, civil rights leader Benjamin L. Hooks was laid to rest Wednesday.
Political leaders and civil rights figures gathered to pay their respects to the 85-year-old former lawyer, judge and NAACP director. He died last week at his Memphis home after a long illness.
He was remembered as not just a pioneer and activist, but also a dedicated preacher, a loving husband and a caring friend.
"Mrs. Hooks, you lost your husband, but we lost a hero," said Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People President Benjamin Jealous said Hooks would want the fight for social justice to continue.
"He would want us to get off the bleachers and onto the battlefield," Jealous said.
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.
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 1965 he 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.
He was the first black commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission, serving for five years before resigning to take over as the NAACP's executive director in 1977.
At the time, the organization's stature had diminished. But when he left in 1992, the group had rebounded, with membership growing by several hundred thousand.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who knew Hooks for nearly 40 years, said the civil rights leader also had a sense of humor. He recalled becoming governor in 1978 and asking Hooks to be part of his cabinet.
Hooks declined because he had his hands full with the NAACP. Some years later, the two met a reception and discussed that conversation.
Alexander said Hooks told him, "I didn't want to be in the governor's cabinet. I wanted to be the governor."
Carolyn Long, who attended Hooks' church in Memphis, said he never lost touch with the 500 parishioners there. Hooks was also a pastor for 30 years at Detroit's Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church.
"He was involved in many things, but he still made time for his members," Long said. "He touched everybody from the little ones all the way to the old ones. He was always full of joy and laughter."