A Conversation With Benjamin Hooks on His Civil Rights Legacy

INTERVIEW

'I've been through it. I've seen it all. I've spent about half my life in segregation, half my life in integration. And believe me, integration is better."

That's Benjamin Hooks speaking, the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who has suddenly and unexpectedly announced his retirement by April 1, 1993, from the leading civil rights organization in the United States, thereby setting off a succession battle. Already, a number of resignations and retirements have occurred on the 64-member board of directors.

In a conversation just before his announcement, at the NAACP headquarters on the edge of Baltimore, he leveled a blast at those who have opposed the NAACP's goals:

"On balance, the whole of the Reagan-Bush years have been very difficult here.... It's been my personal legacy to have to deal with Mr. Reagan for eight years, and then Mr. Bush whom we expected so much of in relation to Ronald Reagan [that] has not proved to be true. So that we have won some major victories, but some of the victories have been things we expected....

"The Supreme Court, peopled by Reagan-Bush appointees in the majority, devastated gains we thought we had made. I'm glad we had the 1991 Civil Rights Bill passed and signed, but I can't help wondering if we would not have needed it but for the backward movement of the Supreme Court. If the court had not absolutely moved backward, we would not have had to restore the status quo. That's disturbing," he says as the nation celebrates Black History Month.

Mr. Hooks, a former lawyer, minister, judge, and chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, talks candidly about whether there's been advancement for blacks in the year of the filmed Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King; the year of David Duke, former Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party leader who has run for Louisiana governor and is running for president; as well as national attempts to scuttle the Civil Rights Act and affirmative action.

He says, "I guess the high point was that we finally got a Civil Rights Bill that the president signed, and a good one."

But the man who's spent his life fighting racism, bigotry, and prejudice says, "The David Duke phenomenon is frightening, frightening.... The good news is that black folk again realized the enormous power of the ballot and voted like I have not known in many years."

He told the White House he would boycott the signing of the Civil Rights Bill in the Rose Garden because White House counsel C. Boyden Gray had written a controversial directive for the president to also sign that morning. The boycott threat came from Hooks and other prominent black leaders. Hooks says the directive "as we interpreted it would have made mincemeat out of many of the things that we had come to take for granted."

The Gray directive was withdrawn just before the ceremony, but Hooks has not forgotten the fight and he says of Mr. Gray: "He seems to be the hand behind ... all the problems we've had with the White House during this administration."

Hooks spoke out this month on the economic power of black buyers, the fact that 65 percent of black car owners buy American cars, while 30 percent buy Japanese cars. The black car dealerships among the Big Three American carmakers outnumber the Japanese 359 to 11. He has already urged black American not to buy Japanese cars.

In this interview he urged that they buy American across the board, "Absolutely. that's the real thrust.... The car industry is perhaps symptomatic of the whole [loss of jobs] problem," he says.

Growing up in the segregated South, Hooks knew prejudice personally.

But the episode he remembers most vividly came after he became assistant public defender in Memphis, Tennessee. This was after his education at Le Moyne College in Memphis, his JD from Howard University, and his joining the Tennessee bar and practising law.

Court officials decided to expand the public defender corps, and put two permanently in each courtroom. He was told by superiors that a young and inexperienced white lawyer would be his boss "this young man who had just passed the bar, and had never tried a case as far as I knew....

"Even though I'd had 15 years of experience trying cases, and an excellent reputation, he was the boss because I was black and he was white. And yet when it came to trying the case, I'd have to tell him.

"I was bitter then, but it didn't last, because as a result of that, I got appointed to the bench as a judge, the first black judge in the South, and that was a heady feeling...."

Now as he looks back over the 15 years he's been executive director of the NAACP, he hears critics say there is a generation gap and that young professionals are impatient with the NAACP.

"The NAACP has helped every black in the nation, every one, use the water fountain, get a job, use the hotel, treat us as human beings," he says.

"We have a varied membership, from people with Phd's to people who dropped out in third grade. There are 500,000 of them. They're devoted and their love of liberty is the same.... You've got to believe that tomorrow somehow can be and will be better than today."

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