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Longtime civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks dead at 85

Associated Press | 4/20/2010, 8:51 p.m.
Former President George W. Bush (left) presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to civil rights pioneer Benjamin Hooks during a ceremony held on November 5, 2007 in the East Room of the White House. Hooks, a champion of minorities and the poor, died last week at the age at 85. AP /Ron Edmonds

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Benjamin L. Hooks, a champion of minorities and the poor who, as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP),  increased the group’s stature, has died. He was 85. State Rep. Ulysses Jones, a member of the church where Hooks was pastor, said Hooks died last Thursday at his home, following a long illness.

Hooks became executive director of the NAACP in 1977, taking over a group that was $1 million in debt and had shrunk to 200,000 members from nearly a half-million in the 1950s and 1960s. He pledged to increase enrollment and raise money for the organization.

“Black Americans are not defeated,” he told Ebony magazine soon after his induction. “The civil rights movement is not dead. If anyone thinks that we are going to stop agitating, they had better think again. If anyone thinks that we are going to stop litigating, they had better close the courts. If anyone thinks that we are not going to demonstrate and protest, they had better roll up the sidewalks.”

By the time he ended his position as executive director in 1992, the group rebounded, with membership growing by several hundred thousand. Toward this, he created community radio-thons to make the public more aware of activities by local NAACP branches and boost membership.

“He came in at a time the NAACP was struggling and gave it a strong foundation. He brought dignity and strong leadership to the organization,” Jones said.

Hooks also created an initiative that expanded employment opportunities for blacks in Major League Baseball and launched a program where corporations participated in economic-development projects in black communities.

“The nation best remembers Benjamin Hooks as the leader of the NAACP,” President George W. Bush said in 2007 when he presented Hooks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the country’s highest civilian honors. “Dr. Hooks was a calm — yet forceful — voice for fairness, opportunity and personal responsibility. He never tired or faltered in demanding that our nation live up to its founding ideals of liberty and equality.”

Nearly two decades earlier, Hooks pleaded with Bush’s father, then-President George H.W. Bush, for action on a string of bomb attacks in the South that killed in December 1989 a federal judge in Alabama and a black civil rights lawyer in Savannah, Ga.

The same month, another bomb was intercepted at an NAACP office in Jacksonville, Fla., and an Atlanta television station received a letter threatening more attacks on judges, attorneys and NAACP leaders.

“We believe that this latest incident is an effort to intimidate our association, to strike fear in our hearts,” he said at the time. “It will not succeed. We intend to go about our business, but we will most certainly be taking precautions.”

Walter Leroy Moody, now 75, was convicted of the killings and other charges in 1997 and remains on Alabama’s death row.

Hooks’ inspiration to fight social injustice and bigotry stemmed from his experience of 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.