Legacy of Ben Hooks lives on at institute bearing his name

newsroom@tri-statedefender.com | 2/28/2014, 9:59 a.m.


"We're using an academic platform to support community engagement, " said Daphene R. McFerren, who has served as the institute's director since 2008.

Education and activism defined the life of Hooks, who was born in Memphis in 1925. He studied pre-law at LeMoyne-Owen College before serving his country in World War II. During the war, Hooks found himself guarding Italian prisoners who were permitted to eat in restaurants that were off limits to him. He resolved to devote his life to fighting bigotry.

Hooks opened his own law firm, becoming Tennessee's first black criminal court judge and, later, the first African-American appointed to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

An ordained Baptist minister, Hooks frequently preached about social justice and became a pioneer of restaurant sit-ins and other boycotts organized by the NAACP, an organization he would later lead.

His great-nephew, Brent Hooks, says his uncle had an uncanny knack for storytelling.

"That's an ability of great leaders – to be able to capture a crowd through storytelling," he said. "The humor within his storytelling made you feel like you were close to him, no matter who you were."

Dr. Hooks was also a staunch advocate of self-help, telling the 1990 NAACP convention delegates, "I'm calling for a moratorium on excuses. I challenge black America today, all of us, to set aside our alibis."

Dr. Hooks spent his later years encouraging both the study of the American Civil Rights Movement and the identification of contemporary issues that continue to affect minorities and the poor.

The Hooks Institute was established in 1996 when Dr. Hooks donated his personal papers, which spanned his career as lawyer, civil rights activist and judge, to the University of Memphis. Today, Special Collections – part of the University of Memphis Libraries – houses almost 400 boxes of his letters, which have been made accessible to the public.

"The Institute has gone from the donation of his papers to a mission of preserving the history of the civil rights movement, but also being actively engaged in the issues that affect our communities today," said McFerren, a Yale graduate and Harvard-educated attorney, who initially came to the Hooks Institute as a visiting scholar and whose own parents were civil rights leaders in Fayette County.

The Institute's achievements include the creation of several civil rights documentaries, including "Freedom's Front Line: Fayette County, TN" and most recently, "Duty of the Hour," which centers on the life of Dr. Hooks. "The Memphis 13," which tells the story of the integration of Memphis City Schools, was funded in part by the Institute.

The Hooks Institute also honors authors through its Hooks Institute National Book Award, bestowed each year on a book that best furthers the legacy of the American Civil Rights Movement.

Community outreach includes Splash Mid-South, a program focused on increasing swimming competency among minority youths, who statistically have the highest drowning rates. Partners in that program include Methodist-Le Bonheur Health Care, YMCA of the Mid-South, Tiger Swimming, Safe Kids Mid-South and the City of Memphis.