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Biographical Details of Leadership
Contemporary Lens on Black Leadership
Historical Focus on Race
BOND: Dr. Benjamin Hooks, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership. Thank you for doing this.
HOOKS: Thank you for having me.
BOND: We want to begin with some questions about the Brown v. Board of Education decision. What were your thoughts when you first heard about this in May of 1954?
HOOKS: You know, the most peculiar thing -- I was a practicing lawyer, had been practicing about five years. I recognized the significance of the case but it took me a few days for it to really sink in. I heard the opposition talk about massive resistance, nullification and interposition and all those words. And I re-read the case and I was a NAACP member, Channel Legal Redress Committee. But it took a few days for it to dawn on me that this was the end of legal segregation in America.
BOND: So after reading the case, you thought this was it?
HOOKS: I knew it was it, after I reflected on it and re-read it. Because if you're going to have integration in schools, then obviously you could not have separate drinking fountains in the school, you couldn't have two restrooms -- two sets of restrooms. You couldn't have two swimming pools, you couldn't have two baseball teams. If you eliminated it in the school system where millions of kids are involved, then obviously it seemed to me you couldn't maintain two restrooms downtown. It would become ludicrous then. And I then understood why the opponents -- the Strom Thurmonds and Fielding Wrights in that crowd -- were saying all of these, you know, terms of vociferous opposition because they recognized it before we did. This was -- it may take -- I didn't know how many years it would take for it to, you know, become effective, but I recognized that a unanimous decision eliminating integration in the schools -- segregation of schools.
Now remember, we had always had some cases that I was aware of. I think the McLaurin case in Oklahoma where the state said that this black student could sit on our side of the classroom and, you know, listen but not participate. That I knew that this case eliminated all that foolishness, and that's why I made the statement no separate restrooms could exist, no separate swimming pools, separate baseball teams. The whole -- they couldn't have the black kids in one side of the class and the whites in the other. And once that happened in the public school system, the way you deal with the bulk of people, then it was obvious to me at that point. But it -- very fankly, it didn't dawn on me the first time I read it, not the first day, not the first week. I had to read it, re-read it, and then think about it. And it was almost like a bolt of lightening when it hit me. The only question then was how long would it take to become effective.
BOND: Now, looking back on it, almost fifty years from that time, what has it meant? How did it work itself out? What does Brown mean today?
HOOKS: I think that, in the largest sense, every advance we've made has been based on Brown. Every single advance. Nobody would have thought about doing some of the things we've done -- not SNCC, not SCLC, not NAACP, not the Freedom Riders -- had it not been bolstered by Brown. Because it took a while for the consciousness to spread through the community that this was the death knell of segregation. It could no longer exist. The question then became How long? Under what circumstances? What steps must be taken to speed it along? But the decision that the -- you know, remember the NAACP had been going through a series of things -- restrictive covenant cases we'd won, the -- in order to understand Brown and to understand the whole integration movement, and the whole civil rights movement, you've got to look at the NAACP as a bellwether, that organization that had a vision, a philosophy, a message starting in 1909. And nothing they did was done by happenstance. Sometimes they had to change their method of operation because of a resistance, but every step was a legal step.
And there's one of the things that bothers me -- that the larger white community seemed to put more emphasis on marching feet that thinking brains. The fact that black lawyers conceived, conceptualized and carried into being a plan to eliminate segregation in this country. That a group of black lawyers led largely by Charlie Houston -- others, of course, were involved -- had to sit down and [ask], "How can we do this?" And step by step. And, as an NAACP lawyer going to the seminars with many people, I had become very well aware that they didn't teach it in my law school. I learned this at the table with Thurgood Marshall and with Constance Baker Motley and Robert Carter and other NAACP lawyers what that strategy had been long before I had started practicing law. And it was to hit the weak points. One was interstate commerce, which the federal government regulated. And that meant that if you were traveling on a railroad car from Virginia to West Virginia and had to pass state boundaries, the federal government was involved and we ought not to let them segregate us in the dining cars and so forth. And it was that kind of philosophy. You know, step by step. Now originally -- and it's strange when you look at Brown v. Board of Education -- originally the NAACP adopted another methodology, and that was they decided to attack the South at its weakest point. The Brown -- the old decision in 1898, Plessy v. Ferguson --
BOND: Plessy v. Ferguson.
HOOKS: -- said separate, but equal. So the NAACP lawyers said, "All right. We'll now start on medical schools and law schools and schools of engineer and architecture. If we go to Tennessee and Mississippi, we know they don't have enough money to build a separate but equal law school, so we'll demand that black students be admitted to the law schools, to the engineering schools." All of these were closed state schools. That was the legal strategy that most people are not aware of at this point. When they did that, the -- the southern states reacted in various ways. You know they didn't admit us. But they also created a fund. So they would say to a Julian Bond that wants to go to medical school, "Look, we'll pay your way to Harvard, Yale, anywhere you can get in. We'll pay your -- your plane fare, your tuition, your room and board." Well, for a student who was really serious, it was fairly hard to turn down an immediate education for an eight-year fight that may or may not result in something. It was after the failure of that approach that in the case that originated not in Kansas called Brown, but the case in South Carolina where black people were asking simply that they have buses --
BOND: In Clarendon County.
HOOKS: Clarendon County, South Carolina. And in that case, it was very strange because that's all they were asking for. When the superintendent of the school system turned them down and said, "No buses for black children, they are for white children," it went to the NAACP. Well, NAACP had an uncompromising policy. We were not asking for alleviation, we were asking for elimination. And they made it clear, "We'll not take this case unless you go to the root of it." Most people don't recognize that in the first SCLC case in Montgomery that originally they asked for black bus drivers on the black districts. You know, that they asked for an alleviation of segregation. The NAACP had adopted the uncompromising policy, "We will not retreat. We are going to go the root of the issue." So in the Clarendon County case, when NAACP took it, it then went to education.
So many people have asked me, "Why'd you start at the primary level instead of at the top?" Well, they did not know we did start. When I say "we," obviously I was not personally involved, but using the term of NAACP, we did start at the top level and went to the bottom level in Clarendon County because it was a decision -- and, by the way, that decision of NAACP was momentous and fraught with much peril. And there were hundreds of hundreds of black intellectuals who thought the NAACP was making the wrong step and told them. It has always amuses me when I hear people say NAACP is Uncle Tom and this -- and the this and the that. When they made a decision, that in the opinion of many of our critics could have been fatal, they said, "You make great progress going step-by-step. Now you're going all the way. If the Supreme Court does not rule with you, then much of our progress has been negated and the path to the future will be very cloudy. Can we ever overcome it?" And there were serious discussions about whether or not the NAACP should proceed in that way.
Now look at it just for a moment, and I hope I don't take too long with this, but if you look at the composition of the Supreme Court and what happened, it becomes very obvious that the critics of NAACP -- and I give them credit for moving in good faith. They were not saying, "Don't go forward," but "Don't take this great step at one time and lose everything." You know about the dog with the bone in his mouth? Don't lose it all. Because the Supreme Court at the time we went was not necessarily a great Supreme Court. It was only the addition of Warren to the Supreme Court and some changes that made the real difference. And I can never give enough credit to Earl Warren as the Chief Justice who very carefully crafted a decision which got us a unanimous opinion. And it was it important that it be nine to zero because it gave an uncompromising message. As you go back and read the history as I've had to do as a lawyer, over and over again, I've been fascinated by all the things that happened. The death of, I think it was [Fred M.] Vinson, the other judges who sort of moved and changed their mind.
And there was a movie made -- I forget the name of it -- in which Warren is portrayed as coming to Virginia after he had been appointed and had a black chauffeur. And the next morning when Warren came down, he asked his chauffeur, "Why'd you spend the night in the car?" And the chauffeur said, "Why'd I spend the night in the car? Because there's no place here that I can sleep." And I know people marvel at that as if it were not true, but it's quite possible that a governor of California had never been exposed to the rawness of segregation where a chauffeur who had driven him all day, weary and tired at night, did not have a place to sleep. And something clicked in Warren's mind at that point -- "This is wrong." It's interesting. I've taken much too long on that, but in my judgment, when you read the history and understand that, as far as I am concerned, nothing else that happened would have been in place had it not been Brown first. That was the building block. It would have been like trying to build the Empire State Building on no foundation. The movement that you led so well, the movement that Dr. King led, the Freedom Rides, the later movements of NAACP, the sit-in movement, were all predicated on the fact that the decision that had been rendered that integration was the order of the day or at least segregation was dead and, therefore, that gave all of us who were interested a chance to pursue our individual mechanism to try to speed up that day.
BOND: Let's move on to your background in education. As you know, we've developed an amazing amount of biographical information about you and about all the other participants in this series, but who are the most significant people in your life -- early, early life, childhood? In influencing you in the path that you've taken? I'm guessing your going to say your parents, but your parents and who?
HOOKS: Well, my parents were certainly involved. One incident in particular, my father was a photographer and was a graduate of twelve years of school at a time in 1907 when that was equivalent to a college education, and chose -- a photographer had a studio and was well known. My grandmother was a pioneer educator, an early graduate of Berea College and a teacher -- first black teacher at Berea College before they --
HOOKS: So around my table -- my mother did not finish high school, but she was a tenth grade scholar. And I hate to say this, but in my judgment, looking at her English and her command of ordinary things -- was far advanced of what we can get now in that grade. But, around my kitchen table, my sisters and brother -- my sister was a secretary of the Memphis branch of NAACP in the '30s when there was almost a death sentence to do that. So I heard these discussions around my table.
And one thing that always touched me -- we did not not have a library for black kids anywhere in the city. Black people, pardon me. So after a lot of agitation -- and people forget that black leaders that we now call "Uncle Tom" were always agitating for street lights and for stop signs and for curb and gutters and better schools. They did, in my judgment, as much as they could within the context of that day. And we ought to give them more credit than we do. So finally, some people kept agitating that the city decided in a public park place to put a small library for black kids. And I went to that library. It was a small, small room, some rather worn-out books and all. And I remember hearing other people criticizing and complaining about how small it was, how inadequate it was, how worn out the books were. So went to my father and said, "Dad, they've got this little library down there." He said, "Uh huh." I had been to it and I explained it to him. Well, in those days you were quite respectful of your father. And he said, "Well, I'm glad you were down there." I felt really good. I said, "And it's a shame the little, small library they've built for us and the inadequate books." He said, "That's right." He said, "But let me ask you something. Have you read all the books that are in that library?" And I've never forgotten that. That steered my course that whatever you have, before you start complaining, do the best you can with what you have. We used to argue about the fact that the school books we had were worn-out books the white kids used to use. All right, that -- that's terrible. But I say to the kids, "You use that book. Let us as wronged people agitate the better books. Don't you throw the book out. Use what's in that book while those of us older than you fight to get you some better books or a better school."
And I guess that was one of the guiding philosophies of my life. And the NAACP always tries to raise that question. Do the best you can with what you have while we fight for more. And then my high school principal, I loved him with a holy passion because he was a great disciplinarian and I wanted to be a school teacher. When I raised my finger, I wanted the kids to get quiet -- grade school principal. And there were -- in my childhood days I was in my father's studio. We had a doctor, a lawyer, a dentist and --
BOND: In the building he was in?
HOOKS: In the building where he was in, and a minister's meeting. And I early on decided that I wanted to be a lawyer. Listening to my sister, I made a decision that somehow, even though I did not completely understand the NAACP would be the best mechanism of all the things I had heard in that early day to bring about change. And then I had the advantage. My father got the Chicago Defender, a weekly newspaper published -- Negro newspaper -- published, and the Pittsburgh Courier. And George Schuyler, P.L.[Percival Leroy] Prattis, Langston Hughes, I was able to keep up. Bishop William Walls of the AME Church and all the great -- DuBois and Walter White. The people that were doing things -- Mary Bethune -- I had a chance to read, and I remember and lying on the floor in the studio, reading those papers with -- then you had a local black paper that was fairly militant. So -- Atlanta Daily World had a -- not daily, it was just a weekly then, bi-weekly. They had a Memphis paper, the Memphis World. So reading those things. We didn't have Ebony or Jet, but we did have Defender. On the East coast, I didn't read it, Afro-American. But these were great organs of communication.
We had not very much on radio. I remember early on when somebody put "Wings Over Jordan" on the radio and how my mother on Sunday morning would not move for like a whole hour. You couldn't keep any noise. And I can hear those great songs now reflecting through my mind. So these were the influences. And I just sort of felt like -- and I didn't -- I read all these books about young, black kids committing rape and robbery and incest. I didn't -- I wasn't raised in that kind of environment. And most of the folk I know were not raised -- we were raised to respect God and country, to respect each other, to be obedient to our parents. But my father had this feeling that one day things were going to change. And my mother, in her own quiet way -- insurance men who were white used to come to the house. But she had a standing rule -- "You can come in my house if you take your hat off. If you don't, don't come in. Stay on the front porch." And they understood that even back in the '30s. I didn't quite catch it until much later. I never saw my mother go to a grocery store in her life because she knew she was going to be called by her first name, and she would not go. She sent us. But the market man who came by, she went out there and shopped with him because he called her Mrs. Hooks.
I learned a lot how black people in their own quiet way were somehow putting up these, you know, signs of resistance. And, on the other hand, we were told if we were lost and on our way to hell, don't ask a white policeman anything because you may get beat to death, you know, they were like an occupation force. It was -- and then I lived in Memphis where E. H. Crump was the boss. So he ran the town whether you were white or black. You did what he said or left there. But all of my young days I didn't get an inferiority complex or I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about it. I read books and played marbles and did the other things. But I knew that one day I wanted to be involved in helping make change.
BOND: You mentioned high school principals and a teacher lifting a hand and quieting the room. What educational figures early on besides these two had an influence on you? Do you remember a particular teacher or particular --
HOOKS: Yes. I remember Gertrude Edwards who, by the way, I later pastored, did something to me, for me or something. I don't know how to describe it, but in those days, she was a stern disciplinarian. And you knew not to play around with her. Third grade. And she went out of the class one day and we all were cutting up as we did then. You know, talking and moving about. And when she came back in we sort of froze. And one little girl, in those days we called them a, you know, tattle-tail, and she said, "Miss Edwards, it was Judy, it was Ben -- " She'd start calling names. And Miss Edwards looked at me and said, "I don't believe Ben acted a fool when I was gone. I believe if I went to town and came back, he would act like he had some sense." Well, the fact of the matter is I didn't know how much that tested me. All of my life I've recognized that people expected something of me and that I owed it to them. Now she knew I had cut up, but what she did was put me under a psychological obligation not to ever do it again. And that happened in the third grade. Now I guess I've never forgotten that lesson, that she didn't expect Ben to act a fool if she went to town and came back. And from that day on I tried to, you know, model myself in the way that, whether people are looking at me or not, I could do the things that I thought were right.
BOND: Now, of these figures who were in the building where your father's studio was -- the lawyer, the doctor, the ministers you met there -- why was the lawyer particularly appealing to you as opposed to the doctor?
HOOKS: Well, I don't know except that I suppose that somehow I wanted to be a preacher. My father was not so much in love with organized religion. I think he'd seen too much -- too many things. By the way, I baptized my father many years later and he became a devoted member of my church.
BOND: But the same time you describe yourself as being shy.
BOND: How could you wanna get up and make speeches in front of people and be shy at the same time?
HOOKS: You know, but -- you know, the shyness came on me about the seventh grade, I think. I was not as shy in my early days. I had an unusual experience -- a lot of people had it -- when I was in the sixth grade. One day the principal walked in the sixth grade and called my name and five or six others. And they called it in that day "irregular promotion." So about one month in the sixth grade I went to the seventh grade. And psychologically it took me a while to recover. In the sixth grade I was a leader, and I was in charge of things. And I went to the seventh grade -- I was young already for the sixth grade. I finished high school at sixteen, finished grammar school at twelve. So when I went to the seventh grade, I was a little bit over-awed by things, you know, by being with this older crowd. And a certain shyness overtook me then. And I was not able to articulate myself in front of the class. And that -- and that shyness followed me through law school. And sometimes I wondered if I went through law school, because in class I had a hard time reciting. You know, when they called on me to define a case or deliver straight, I stumbled and fell through it. And I wondered, "What in the world am I doing in law school?" because I envisioned that I'd have to go before a jury.
HOOKS: And that -- when I finished eighth grade, they used to have what they called "valedictorian" and "salutatorian," and the valedictorian was first, the salutatorian was second in honors. I finished at salutatorian and they gave me a speech to read. And I stumbled and cried through that speech, you know. And, yet, in high school I was always an officer of my class. I was treasurer of my senior class and editor of the year book, but when it came to speaking to a group, I couldn't do it.
BOND: But you said a moment ago you said, you were a leader in the sixth grade. How did that leadership exhibit itself? I mean, what made you know that you were a leader?
HOOKS: Well, in some ways I could help set the pace. You know, behavioral patterns, the games we played, who would be in charge. I was not a good athlete so I -- I substituted trying to run things for being a good athlete. If they played softball, they had a way of throwing the bat. And the man who had the last hole would pick the team. Well, you can count on Ben Hooks being the last one on the team. So usually I ended up as the umpire or the referee. And I enjoyed the power of calling people out, you know, and making the rules. And I guess kids have that innate sense of wanting to learn something. At home, I had two younger sisters and I had sort of charge of their life. I told them what to do and what not to do. And in school, the first six grades, that's what I meant by, you know, being a leader. Just small things.
HOOKS: If we were deciding on a class play, I would sort of lead in what play. If we were going to buy candy to sell, to make money, I was the one who went to the candy store. The principal would call me and George Sadler -- who later went to the UN -- to go and get him a sandwich or to go with him to the fair and arrange things. But when I went to the seventh grade, I felt a certain shyness because of that certain transfer. And that stuck with me until I came back to Memphis to practice law and I had, what I call, a miraculous delivery, which is difficult to explain to people who don't believe in God, who don't understand that type of thing. But when I was back practicing law and been there a month or two, somebody came and asked me if I'd speak at a church. I said, "Oh, yes. I'll be glad to deliver the lay sermon that morning." The closer I got, the more I knew I couldn't do it. But I went on out there anyway. And I had developed something, I don't know what it was, I had written it down. I look at it sometimes now. And finally they said, "Now, we have a young lawyer this morning who's going to speak to us." And, Julian, as sure as I'm sitting here, when I stood up, all my shyness, all my -- all of my problem went away. I spoke that morning, and since that time I've spoken to fifteen-, twenty-thousand at a time. I've been to the Republican National Convention, Democratic National Convention. I've spoke in so many places. And never again, from that day, have I felt any particular sense of shyness or, you know -- I worry whether I'm going to do well, but I've never felt that -- it was a miraculous deliverance. That's all I can say.
BOND: Now, from the seventh grade forward to this instance of overcoming this shyness, are you saying that the leadership abilities you had demonstrated in the sixth grade didn't follow you along in this same period too? What about college and law school?
HOOKS: It followed me along, but not in speaking before large groups.
HOOKS: I was still active in my -- you know, in eighth grade we had three divisions and I was still very active there. In high school I was the treasurer of my whole senior class. But I think if I had been in my regular class I might have been president.
HOOKS: I was editor of the year book and I was in all of the activities -- High Y club and the Safety Club and this, that and the other -- but more or less at a subordinate level. I worked better through groups. You know, I worked better in getting my -- and perhaps it has followed me through all of my career, because when I was with Dr. King at the SCLC, I never ever saw any leadership role. He called on me to do things that perhaps others didn't want to be bothered with. When we had the annual meeting, the books would be a mess. And he would ask me to get with Dora McDonald and one of two others and try to -- and so the whole convention I'd be in the back room trying to put figures together -- and I was pretty good with them and -- so we could make our presentation to the press. That's why I eventually ended up as financial secretary of SCLC. Others would do the, you know, speech-making and all of that. So in a sense, throughout my future life for many years, my leadership role was secondary and subordinate. I dealt with a lot of older men in fraternal organizations. I'd end up being the secretary and advisor while they had the top role. It never bothered me to do that. That's why I've been disturbed by some young people who have to either be the boss or they can't do anything. I learned how to get along and how to have great influence without being the last word. Now in my professional life, I guess I became sort of spoiled because I became a judge, which means you're on your own. When I was on the Federal Communications Commission, though I was on the collegial body of seven, you're independent. You don't have to kowtow. When I went to NAACP, I was Executive Director and CEO. And I've been Grand Master of Masons in my faith, and head of many other organizations. But my training was, "Learn how to get along with people and work with people." And even today some people don't think I can do that. They think because I was at the top, that I can't work in a subordinate role.
BOND: But this ability to get along with other people, do you think or can you recall instances in high school or even younger where this began to manifest yourself in your personality? This ability to get others to work with you and you to play either subordinate or primary roles. When did this happen?
HOOKS: I think it started as early as I can remember because at the time I was in school, I was always with a whole group of strong personalities. Even little kids, you know. And I sort of learned how to listen to what they were saying and you know, and come up with a position in between. At the NAACP, for the most part, I've ordered a great deal of conflict by listening to what people had to say and if they had any merit, trying to find it and not just summarily dismissing them. You know what I'm saying? And wherever I've done it, I've made a tremendous mistake. The two or three instances in my life where I've been harsh with people, it came back to haunt me. You know, that's not my -- confrontational style is not mine, and yet, I'm as persistent in what I want as anybody you could ever see. But I just approach it perhaps from a different angle. And I think that started in my early childhood.
BOND: Now, what do you see as the difference between vision, philosophy, and style in expressing leadership? Vision, philosophy, and style.
HOOKS: Well, my style is sort of, I guess, based on my vision and philosophy. For instance, when I assumed the pastor of the church, nobody ever heard me make a criticism of my predecessors. When I came to the NAACP, you will never read anywhere where I had any criticism of anything that Roy Wilkins did or said. In my mind, perhaps I did have some thoughts, but it's not my style to be critical. It bothers me when somebody takes a position and starts immediately tearing everything else somebody has done. Unless the structure is crooked or bad, why try to destroy it? And that has been my style. And I suppose that's based on my philosophy.
When I came to the NAACP, there were those who warned me that the people who were there were all Roy Wilkins' devotees or clones, you know, loved him and they'd never work with me or, if I could use a worse word, never work for me. That's a little shade of difference there. And so I was advised that my best bet would be to clean house. And I've talked with my college presidents who brag on the fact when I came here there were fifteen deans. In three years I have hired thirteen new deans. When I went to the NAACP, I didn't move anybody, you know, from the position they're at. I worked with them. Later on I made some adjustments, but I made it my business to try to work with the people who were there because I thought when I got there the institution had existed long before I got there. It had done without Ben Hooks from 1909 til 1977, so obviously I was not indispensable. But they never knew me. So I try to work with people. I think that's my style and I suppose that is also a philosophy. Try to use what you have until you find out how it fits.
BOND: Now did you apply this style in other instances, the FCC and the pastorate of these two churches and in the Mahalia Jackson chicken franchise? Does this apply in all cases? Is it adjustable?
HOOKS: I think I've found that style to be applicable in my church. When I went there, I didn't move anybody at first. Now, that doesn't mean that down the line you don't find out people who simply resist your philosophy and not work with you. And you have to act. You just can't keep -- and in my church there were one or two instances where I had to say, "We just can't make it and it'd be better for one of us to leave. And since I plan to stay, you have to leave." But it took -- but I didn't do that the first day. I tried to work it out. NAACP, as I recall it, the people who were there I kept as many of them as I could. If they left, they left on their own for reasons other than me trying to send them away. Clarence Mitchell was there. I regretted sincerely when he had to leave. Mildred Roxborough stayed with me and did an excellent job throughout her tenure there. All the people who were there I tried to work with them.
And it has been true at the FCC. I brought one new person in, and my two principle assistants were folk who were there. And we had a glorious time at the FCC and made so many changes that it would be -- I could take the next three hours and tell you some of the things we were able to do there. I also discovered that you can get help out of people you never looked for. At the FCC there were seven commissioners. And we did so much in the realm of EEOC-- see, remember, when I went to the FCC, there were about 9,000 radio stations, only thirteen owned by black. Not a single television station owned by a black. If you had gone across the country, you'd see very few anchor people in newsrooms or very few camera people. They were just non-existent. And we brought about a wholesale change. In the FCC itself, we had two hundred twenty-five lawyers. Only three black. Before I left there, we hired sixty-five. But I discovered that I could do better working with the Commission in every decision that had to do with EEOC with 7-0. Every decision. That meant sometimes I had to compromise. We instituted broadcast rules in which we looked at each station individually as to what they were doing with minorities and women, if they had more than ten employees. There were many of my black colleagues out in the field who wanted me to get it down to five. I saw if I went for five employees, I'd be in deep trouble. Most of the Commission wanted twenty-five. So I had to go with ten. You have to make certain strategic compromises, but more important, to have a unanimous commission behind me. In a day of budget cuts, we set up a several million dollar budget just for EEOC enforcement and hired some fifteen people and never cut it. You know, it kept going up. I discovered that you can work with people sometimes better. I also found --
BOND: Now, where'd that come from? When do you first discover that "If I want to get something done, I've gotta go to Joe and Frank and Bill and Bob?" I mean, as long ago as grade school and high school? Or when?
HOOKS: I think so. But I also had another unusual experience in my early legal career in a strictly segregated society. I practiced law before I went on the bench some fifteen years. Circuit Court judges. Our general sessions -- Chancellor Court, Criminal Court. And it was one of the most amazing things in my life. I never ever had a decision rendered in court against me that I thought was based on race. Not one time. And I look back on it in amazement, you know. So I discover that day-by-day. It was very different in the federal court. The one federal court judge kicked us unmercifully. But in the state courts, men were of a different caliber. And later on I became their colleague. Went on picnics and brunches and eating dinner in their homes. And I discovered a void of people who really wanted to -- didn't know they wanted to know some black folk. You know, didn't -- didn't know that. I'm sure you've had that experience. They didn't consciously recognize it. But when Julian came and they had to deal with it, they say, "Well, how can we, you know, make this thing work?" So I guess it was an evolving process, you know, with me.
Then I was in the Masons. I was in the Elks. And I was -- I remember one day in the Masonic organization I wanted to be the Master of my lodge, and my lodge didn't meet very often. My Grand Master helped me to get a dispensation so I could be elected. I remember calling individually eighteen men to come to the meeting. They all came and I sat down with them. I said, "I'd like to be Master. Does anybody else want it?" Nobody else wanted the position but me. I said, "Well, will you elect me?" They said, "Yes." I said, "Well, I'm chairing Dr. Walker's campaign for the school board and I've got a very important speech to make. And I'm going to rush out and make this speech and come back." And I did. When I came back, they had elected somebody else. That taught me a great lesson. When I walked in feeling big and, you know, I made my great speech and I'm the campaign manager, and when I started shaking hands, nobody looked at me. They looked off, you know. And finally I said, "Well -- well, what happened?" And I discovered that somebody else had been elected and was elected by one or two votes. So I discovered early on that while you have to depend on people -- I saw it on the back of a cab here -- "You may trust a dealer, but cut the cards" -- a cab, I know you've seen it --
BOND: Yes. They have little sayings on the top.
HOOKS: Little saying on the back. "Trust the dealer, but cut the cards." So I learned also that you can take your philosophy too far. You can be too trusting. You have to watch. I don't mean to say that I wanna be naive and suggest that people -- suggest -- believe that folk will do what they say. But you work at it. You attempt to set up and find out, "What is it that John wants? Can it be done? What is it Mary's looking for? You know, can it be done?" In my law career so many people came to me for divorce and I'd talk to them about it. And to merit, many of them are still together. You know. So that it's a matter of a philosophy of trying not to be confrontational if you don't have to be.
And then I had this other experience, there was a fellow in Tennessee called John Hooker who ran for governor and for senator, one of the most brilliant men that I knew. Great lawyer. And somehow when he lost the senate and the governship, he felt it was because he didn't have enough business experience. So he started a company called Minnie Pearl Chicken System. Did very well. Became a multi-millionaire. Came to Russell Sugarman who's a friend of mine, A.W. Willis and myself, asked us if we wanted to have some -- because we had supported him politically -- if we wanted to have some franchises. Minnie Pearl. And we didn't think a Minnie Pearl Chicken System would go very well in the ghetto, so we decided we'd like to have our own system and he financed us. He owned 50 percent and we owned 50 percent. One of the early minority ventures. And I went to Mahalia Jackson and she agreed to lend her name. We gave her stock in the company.
Well, Julian, during the two or three years I worked with John Hooker, I was exposed to more of the business world and how things were really done. It is almost criminal how black people have been kept out of the business life of America, how little we know about how things are really done. We were sitting out in another room when they -- and I would sit then, John Hooker was the kind of fellow who would let A. W. and I sit right in the room while he was cutting multi-million dollar deals. We didn't interfere, but we listened and we'd go out and discuss it, then go back and ask him about it. So I had a chance to learn how to compromise, why you do certain things certain ways at a very young age as a lawyer. I don't want to spend too much time on that, but I was exposed to things that most young blacks are not exposed to because I had a chance to be with this man who -- he became a spectacular failure. But before he went down, he became overnight with over $70 million back in the late '60s when that was a whole lot of money. When his empire collapsed, I collapsed with him. But the knowledge I had gained I still have.
BOND: Do the leadership lessons that you learned from Hooker and Mahalia Jackson, are those applicable in the leadership you exhibit in your church? Do they fit exactly with the leadership you exhibited at the NAACP? Or are there different styles and visions and philosophies that you put in each of these? Is there an overall vision and philosophy, and then alterations to fit each of these circumstances?
HOOKS: Basically, I try to teach from my pulpit that the Christian ideal of life will fit business. I don't think one has to shed his Christianity to be a business person or to run the NAACP. And certain kinds of things about loving people, treating people correctly -- "Do unto others you'd have them do unto you" -- I've tried to let my Christian philosophy work in every avenue of life. And, therefore, I think that I could say basically I don't alter that philosophy too much. I believe that I'd be a hypocrite if I preach one thing on Sunday and practice another thing on Monday and Tuesday. So basically, I think the thing that has crippled us has been too many people try to be Christians on Sunday and act like non-Christians all the week. You can't lie and cheat and steal and misuse and put one person against another person and, you know, do all kind of devious, deceptive things and expect to succeed.
BOND: Let me put it another way. Are there things that the very structure of the church -- particularly the Baptist church, where the minister's all powerful, the board of deacons, but all powerful and relatively independent -- are there things that are different in that structure than in the NAACP, for example? Or even in the FCC, where there's some degree of dependence on the other Commissioners. Do you then exhibit a different style of leadership?
HOOKS: Yeah, I think I see where you -- when I went to the NAACP, it was frustrating that my first two or three years the board of directors was all powerful. And while I had the approval of 95 percent of the congregation, the rank and file members of NAACP, they didn't have any vote on my contract, on my tenure or anything else. So I did have to adjust, you know, to the fact that I could not appeal to the congregation. And I mean by that, the larger mass of people at the convention. But I tried to change the structure somewhat. I led in the movement to put tenure into the constitution so that the board, you know, could not serve forever. I led the movement to give the convention a little more, you know, say so. I also recognized the fact that in a very loose organization like the NAACP you had to have some checks and balances so I didn't go overboard. Later on, I became much more powerful within the NAACP and then I had to try to exercise the restraint of not misusing, you know, the power. The board sort of collapsed. The movement's power collapsed. And by default it fell in my lap. So that, yes, that I get shades of difference, but basically what I'm saying here is that I try to use a basic Judeo-Christian philosophy in my approach to life, and that is true in every angle. I didn't in my law practice try to misuse people, cheat, deceive; not in my court practice, not in my days as a public defender, when I was a judge, wherever I've been.
But you do have to, perhaps -- in the Baptist church, I have evolved. When I first went there forty-five years ago, I suppose I was like most people of that day. I was dictatorial. Over a period of time, I've become much more able to deal with it on a basis of trying to share and use lay people. You know, for what -- when I pastored in Detroit and I had enormously successfully pastorate, moved the church from 1,800 members to over 3,500 then. So a tremendous budget -- built two churches and bought all the property, had the largest Sunday School, largest mission department. I learned then, more than ever, to use the lay people in the church. The person who prepared my budget was a woman who understood it and I trusted her implicitly. In many other things, I began to use people who had abilities and it's been a great lesson to me. And I could recommend it to anybody cause there were a lot of things that -- you know, you have CPAs in the church, you have lawyers, you have people with great ability. And you've got to learn use their ability and they have to learn to work with the pastor within the framework. So I've tried to grow. Hopefully I have.
BOND: I don't want to make too much of the differences between a church, the FCC, the NAACP, but there are some structural differences. In the Baptist church, the minister is on top in a way that the Executive Director of the NAACP isn't on top, and a way an individual commissioner of the FCC isn't on top. And so without any relaxation of moral standards or ethics, just by their nature these institutions require a different kind of functioning.
HOOKS: Well, let me put it this way, I was active in the local branch of NAACP during the days of Walter White and during the days of Roy Wilkins. And I don't know of any Baptist preacher who had more control of the institution than those two men did.
HOOKS: And they ran the NAACP. There were periods when others rose up against them, but they maintained control. Walter White, as you know, got into a situation where he had to resign briefly. Not resign, but take a leave of absence. But until that time, he ran it. Roy Wilkins got pushed because many people thought he had stayed too long. But until that apparent weakness, if it were a weakness, occurred, he ran it completely.
When I went there, I ran into a situation where the board had determined they would never again be that way. But in two or three years I don't -- I just have to say it, that whatever mistakes happened, I ran it completely for a number of years. Then it took another direction. Today the NAACP operates in an entirely different thing. They have an expression in the Bible, "Seest thou the man who is diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings." Well, in the years I was at the NAACP, every inch and ounce of my life was devoted to it, every waking hour. Whether I was at the church, in the pulpit, all of my thoughts were trying to build the NAACP. And I worked with the board and I had a long, glorious period on the board who worked with me. I didn't work against them. I didn't try to usurp their power. We worked harmoniously, you know, trying to build it. But the burden of running it was completely, absolutely, positively on the executive director. I would think if you go back and read that history of Walter White and even James Weldon Johnson and Roy Wilkins, on one occasion when the board went to Roy Wilkins asking about salaries, he told 'em that was none of their business. He set the salaries. And that's when the -- I think he may have, if the story's true, may have gone a little too far.
You always have ups and downs and periods of change, but if you read this statement that "An institution is but the length and the shadow of one person," there's a lot of truth in that. And somebody runs everything. And things that are run by a committee usually end up not quite fitting. So that in the Presidency of the United States, Mr. Bush or Mr. Gore or Mr. Clinton, may let their cabinet members, have a lot of leeway. But at some point, the buck stops at the President. And he has to make certain kinds of decisions. Ask if you could wake him up, Douglas MacArthur. You know, the Harry Truman episode. And I happen to believe in ultimately, somebody's in control. You are now the chairman of the board of the NAACP. During a certain period of time when I was there, there came a collision. The chairman's duties had been set. Nobody can take your place. You may have an executive committee, you may have all kinds of people, but ultimately you're held responsible for the work of the chairmanship of that board, which is an awfully powerful position -- his presidency or he had certain business responsibilities. Ultimately, director of branches, membership, you know, the treasurer, cannot do what he is charged with doing. You both have responsibilities and only you can do it. And in a sense, you have to assume that authority. And the church, even though I have become more, what's that word -- democratic, though I pass out much of the work, ultimately --
BOND: It comes back to you.
HOOKS: -- the buck stops here.
BOND: And that applies across the board in all the different leadership positions that you've occupied.
HOOKS: All the different leadership. When I was the Commissioner of the FCC, the chairman had certain legislative duties, he had certain administrative duties. He chose an executive director, he chose this, that, and the other with our consent. But to the extent that I had a vote, that vote was exclusively mine. Never shall forget one day when we had a very important issue and somebody asked me was I a token, you know, on the FCC? A young, black woman asked me that on the television program. I said, "Well -- " When I first went there, I didn't vote on every issue. I didn't feel qualified. I went to the Chairman one day and said, "I'm going to vote on this issue involving AT&T." It involved multi-billion dollars. Multi-billion dollars. And I didn't think much of it. I just felt I had surveyed it enough to vote. Well, at the FCC they voted in seniority, so I was last to vote. And I didn't pay much attention to it except when it got to me it was 3-3. And then it dawned on me.
BOND: You were breaking the tie.
HOOKS: I'm breaking the tie. I had the only vote now. Here's a black boy from Beale Street voting on a multi-billion dollar, you know, situation. And somebody asked me do I have any, you know, any power? So at that level, there are levels in which the Commissioner, even though he's a member of a collegial body, has a responsibility which is solely his or hers and nobody else's. So that even in a collegial body you have to make certain decisions. And I never will forget when I voted there were -- you know, all over the room folk were looking to see what I would do -- and I wondered if I had not said I was going to vote what would have happened because it would have happened. Because on a tie, as I recall it, the status quo, you know, whatever had been. But anyway, the major point I'm making is that, I think as best I can say it, that my philosophy of trying to be non-confrontational and yet not -- that doesn't make me a pushover. That doesn't mean -- although some people have mistaken that, because I smile and because I'm not -- I try not to become confrontational or mean or rude, it doesn't mean that I'm not set in what I plan to do. Like my mother once -- we asked her not to whip the dog cause he'd, you know, chewed up the socks. And she just smiled, but she caught that dog and wore him out.
So, if I have a purpose and a point in mind and think I'm right, I am going, Mr. Bond, to pursue it to the bitter end. And this business of the NAACP director, the things I believed in, whether it was Reagan or Bush or Carter or whoever was in the White House, I pursued it to the bitter end.
BOND: Let me ask you about ways people characterize making of leaders, how leaders are made. Some people say great people cause great events. Some say movements make great leaders. And some say unpredictable events coming together just create leaders at certain times. Which of these, if any, fits the way you've come to leadership positions?
HOOKS: Well, I may come somewhere in this sense. The events dictate how leadership evolves. If you have a depression, you have a Herbert Hoover and a Franklin Roosevelt. Now, if events make the leader, then Hoover and my -- of course now, you've got to understand I think Roosevelt was the greatest president we've perhaps ever produced in this modern age. And Hoover had a chance to be a great president, and I think he's one of the weakest and saddest, miserable failure. But events were there. So events don't determine the leadership. They simply give an opportunity to exercise leadership. If there had been no depression in '29, I doubt seriously if Roosevelt would have been elected in '32. I think if we had had a chicken in every pot and, you know, the stock market continued upward, that Hoover would have served an eight-year term. But because of the Depression and the perceived image of the people that he did not handle it well. So the Depression events -- if I'm making my point -- determine the leader. But he may fail or succeed. In my judgment, Hoover failed miserably, you know, to deal with it effectively. The Bonus March where he had MacArthur to route the people from -- his failure to understand what happened, even after he left office. I doubt if he ever knew what happened.
When Truman became President, and I've read his life with great interest, I really don't think that anybody since Truman has had to deal with the kind of issues he had to deal with. Some of these presidents have had a glorious time compared with the life and death issues that Truman faced at the time when we could have ended the world with atomic war, when all kinds of issues faced us. And Truman had to make certain decisions. I think that if [Thomas E.] Dewey had been President, we would have had different decisions. So that events give the leader a chance to evolve. And if you serve in certain periods of time when everything is quiet and normal, you may not ever become a great leader.
Calvin Coolidge was president during the time of some so-called normalcy so that, you know, he's just a cipher, a zero with the rim knocked off, or hardened. But when things happen, a civil war, can you imagine what might have happened if Lincoln had not been president? Black people, and I'm sorry to see that, sort of say that he was more concerned about preserving the Union than he was about freeing slaves. Well, you know, that may be true, but look at the obvious answer. Suppose he had said, "Okay, let the Union go. We'll take these Northern states and form, you know, a more perfect union, and you Southern states do what you want." Look how long black folk would have stayed, you know -- even today we may still be in a state of servitude. So that his determination to preserve the Union has other effects. You know, when you make a decision to preserve the Union, that trickles all down the line. Now those who say the Emancipation Proclamation meant nothing, yet Frederick Douglass and other black folk begged them to issue it. And when he issued it, they forget that everywhere Grant and Sherman and Thomas and Butler and other Union generals went, black people recognized they were free. Because the minute the Union troops got in control, the Emancipation Proclamation did free them. You know, in spite of the fact that the actual writing did not free them, but the events did. Now having said that, events gave Lincoln the chance to be a great leader. But the same events might have made somebody else a very weak leader. I hope I'm --
HOOKS: It's what's in you that makes the leadership apparent, but it's the events that determine whether you have a chance to use that.
BOND: Is it at all possible to create leaders? That is, to teach people how to exercise leadership, to create circumstances where John or Mary emerges and becomes a leader? Is it possible to create leaders?
HOOKS: I rather doubt it. I think -- put it this way. We talked about that -- I used Hoover and Roosevelt for an example -- certain events happen. Hoover was there for a while and in my judgment did very little with it. Roosevelt came. There was nothing in Roosevelt's background, you know, a patrician, aristocratic, born rich, never exposed to poverty I don't think, as I see it, and yet there was a reach in him that caused him to feel a compassion and a kinship with those who were the farthest down. When he said one-third of the nation's ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-fed -- I've had a lot of black folk come to me and say, "Well, you know, Roosevelt didn't say much about Negroes." I said, "Yes, he did. When he said one-third ill-housed, ill-fed, ill-clothed, he was talking about us." He didn't have to specify. We were a large part of that class of ill-housed. I lived in that time. No electric lights, no -- leadership, I think, sort of evolves. Opportunities are thrust upon you. What happened to Julian Bond in college? What happened to Marion Barry in college, or to the young lady who has the Children's Fund?
BOND: Marian Wright Edelman.
HOOKS: Marian Wright Edelman. What happened to you that caused you to say, "I'm going to leave this environment and get involved deeply"? What happened to Ben Hooks to leave the FCC where I was sure to be appointed chairperson, and after I became chairman of the FCC, glittering avenues of gold, directorships of major corporations and partnerships in major law firms and multi-million dollar income? What happened? I went to the NAACP for $50,000 a year exchanging one fifty for another. That's all I made, and I went there and subjected myself to all kinds of travail and threats of death, and all. I mean, it's something in me that propelled me. But was I trained to do it? I can't say that I was. I think leaders are born and not made. That innate quality, you know, that's there reacts to circumstances like flowers grow in the proper atmosphere. There may be millions of leaders that never rose to leadership because they were not in the certain position at a certain time. Others who were there who messed it up -- badly.
BOND: Well, Benjamin Hooks, we're glad that you were born. Thank you for doing this.
HOOKS: Thank you, sir.
BOND: Could you say looking at your life and let's say the life of other leadership figures from Frederick Douglass to the modern day Jesse Jackson, that the segregation, discrimination is the event that creates the opportunity for the leader to rise up and fight against injustice as Lincoln fought against the dissolution of the Union? Is that fair to say that racism, segregation is the event, or the circumstance that allows this leadership to -- ?
HOOKS: In some ways, many of the decisions that I made have been based on race. When I came back from the Army, had decided I wanted to be a lawyer, I had also had this desire to be a great teacher and a school principal, but the desire to be a lawyer overcame the other. And I went on to Chicago. But in Chicago there was a black man by the name of Jed B. Martin who had formerly lived in Memphis. He had been run out of Memphis by [E. H.] Crump over something, I don't know what it was. But Jed B. Martin had become the biggest Republican politician in Cook County. By the time I got there in law school, he was the president of the of the baseball -- black baseball league. He owned the Chicago American Giants, a big money-making baseball team. And he had been elected a trustee of the Sanitary Commission, which was the biggest political job that any black had. He knew me and my family. He sent for me and he begged me to stay in Chicago. He painted visions of what I could do. Become a judge and this, that, and the other. And he wanted a young man that he knew and trusted, you know, to stand by his side because his son was in another field. He was a medical -- well, anyway, to make a long story short, I determined to come back to Memphis because I thought the fight against racism was going to be in the South and I wanted to be a part of it.
I determined to be a lawyer because I wanted -- I thought we could have a chance. So many of the decisions I have made in my life -- when I was a young lawyer and was doing pretty well in private practice, we raised all kinds of sound to have a public defender trying to make a penetration into the power structure. Finally, the County Commissioner said, "All right. We'll appoint a public defender." Then they paid so little that nobody wanted the job. And I took the job. A hundred and fifty dollars a month. Never will forget it. Because if I didn't, it was obvious nobody else would. And I said, "Well, we've got to make this progress." So because -- if I had been white, I never would have taken that job -- and I was doing well. It was a part-time job, but it took up too much time. Then becoming a judge was the same thing. I was given many other opportunities. But when the judgeship came along, Governor Frank Clement made it clear that he had picked me. If I did not accept it, he wasn't going to appoint, at that point, a black man to the judgeship. So I said, "Well, you know, they're paying $10,000 a year. I'll just start making some money in the practice of law. I'm my own boss." But I took it. I'm saying that in my case, yes, the question of race predominated my life. And I made certain decisions based on the fact that I thought those decisions helped me to break down the walls of prejudice.
BOND: Race consciousness, obviously, has then had an effect on what you've done in life. Do you see yourself as someone who advances the race or someone who advances society, or is advancing the race, advancing society? These are the same things. I'm just trying to get at where race consciousness fits in your vision of yourself and what you've done.
HOOKS: Well, I think advancing the race, your last statement, advances our total society. There's an old expression, "No chain is any stronger than its weakest link." When we had the attack on 9/11, the World Trade Towers, a plane, if America still had black folks sitting on the back of the bus, still going to segregated schools, drinking from separate water fountains, unable, you know, to use hotels and restaurants, how in the world could we have appealed to the whole world to combat and come together? You know, to root this out of our system. We would have been crippled. And in the last fifteen, twenty years this nation should recognize they're more indebted to a Thurgood Marshall, a Martin King, to the pioneers who fought to, you know, break down racism because as DuBois said at the beginning of the twentieth century, the problem of the twentieth century will be the problem with color line. We have to deal with China and India and Pakistan and Africa and other nations of color, Japan. How could America appeal as the so-called moral leaders of the world, or how could they appeal to morality? So in my own thought pattern and process, the old expression, "What we send to the lives of others, comes back into our very own. Therefore, no man is an island. None goes his way alone." And if you train a dog to bite everybody, he'll finally end up biting you. So you can't have freedom, equality, justice for a few, and not have it for everybody. So I think that advancing the race advances society.
BOND: Speaking of your own leadership style, do you have a different style when you're addressing a black group, a white group, an integrated group? I don't mean is your message different, or is your message different? Is it couched in different languages? Is it expressed in different ways?
HOOKS: Well, if I address a group, I guess I try to think in terms of the group. If I'm addressing National Association of Doctors, whether it's black or white, I might try to deal with some health issues in the civil rights context, or with lawyers more of a legal background, with high school students, you know, at their level. Yes, I do try to tailor my message, you know, to groups. But it's not usually based on black or white except that occasionally when I'm addressing white groups, I do try to spend more time reminding them of their weaknesses, shortcomings, and things they could do. And for the all black group, I might address us on, you know, on a different aspect. But I don't have a different message to emphasize different things.
BOND: Now an author's written that there's a danger in continually thinking of terms of race and gender. And this fellow argues, as many people do, until we learn to use the language of American freedom as a way that embraces us all, we're going to continue to harm the country. What he's talking about, I think, is this kind of charge of divisiveness. That when you constantly talk about race, when you constantly talk about discrimination, that you're really dividing us, not uniting us. What's your answer to that kind of criticism?
HOOKS: Well, I don't agree with that. I think it's poppycock. You know, frankly, like an old ad I saw about Band-Aid being skin color and the Band-Aid was white, you know. A black man says, "This is skin color?" You know. You can ignore it, but you can't make it go away. If you talk about "Pilgrim's feet whose impassioned stress," you know, you've got to think about American Indians who were here living in their own way before we -- before white people came. You can't talk about America without admitting there was slavery and second-class citizenship. You can't really be fair in America without admitting that we grievously mistreated women. I mean, legally, you know, took away their rights and subjected them to all kinds of inhumane treatment. How in the world are you going to deal with America and deal with it? To me, it's the same as saying that on this piece of land, it's flood land. And then when the river overflows, it's going to flow, it's going to -- don't talk about that. Don't talk about floods all the time.
Justice [Lewis F.] Powell made a statement in one of his famous cases, and I admire him -- he said, "Since race caused the problem, then you've got to deal with race to eliminate the problem." If you decide that you were governor of the state of Georgia, and the river had overflowed its banks, and houses have been destroyed, said, "We're going to help people rebuild homes and we're going to take care of their lost wages, but we're not going to take the flood into account." Well, the flood caused -- how in the name of God are you going to deal with it without admitting that that flood caused this? How can you deal with 9/11, you know -- and they're talking now that some people said, "My son was killed in the attack," and the son was nowhere around. You've got to deal with people who were affected in the World Trade Towers. So race caused many problems in this country. Gender caused many problems in this country. And you cannot solve it by ignoring it. And to say that to deal with it creates divisiveness, to me, is to try and paste over a serious wound with a little Band-Aid.
BOND: Do you feel that black leaders, yourself particularly or this whole class of people generally, have an obligation to help other black people? Is it destiny, in effect, that you are a black leader not only because you're a black person but must you direct your leadership abilities towards black people?
HOOKS: Well, you know, that's a very -- perhaps one of the most difficult questions I ever have to answer. I think we are who we are and we do what we do because we are who we are. And I cannot imagine living this life without helping other people. And, therefore, it radiates in my whole life and I fuss with people. I become a little insensitive when I see people who are doing well, who spend no time trying to reach back and help others. Now that might be -- that may be sort of motivated by my childhood experiences. When I came along, most of the black school principals who were at the epitome, the height of -- they always served on urban league, or they served with the Traveler's Aid. You know, they were in something, beyond making a living. And I think it's almost shameful. And I see so many people, it looks to me they only try to practice their profession, take care of their families and not do one earthly thing for anybody else. Yes, I'm full of the concept that we're on earth to help make it a better place. And perhaps I've spent too much of my time in it. I'm not sure. If I had devoted as much time to private business as I did to city causes, I know I'd be a multi, multi-millionaire because I've seen how money is made. But I could never do that. I've always been out there doing things for others. Now, to the extent that it pleases me, I guess I have no complaint.
And maybe I'm a little bit insensitive when I insist that other people ought to be involved. But you heard me on many speeches say that the service we render, is the rent we pay for the space we occupy on God's earth. I just happen to deeply believe that those to whom much is given, much is expected. And I happen to know that in the black community, such progress will be made, however limited it might be, has been because somebody was willing to pay that extra price. Think about Martin Luther King, Jr. When he was finishing up at the, where? Boston.
He came to Tennessee as a candidate for the First Baptist Church in Chattanooga. An old, historic church. Big. More building than people, but it was a great church and we thought it was one of the finest. And they called a pastor by the name of Herman Battle, and they did not call Martin Luther King to pastor the church, which they may have done. Had he been called to pastor First Baptist in Chattanooga, then obviously he would not have been in Montgomery when the business started. If the man who was the Pullman porter -- I can't think of his name right now --
BOND: E.D. Nixon.
HOOKS: E.D. Nixon, had been present on the night that they selected officers for the Montgomery Improvement Association, he may have been selected president. Dedicated, well-trained but not articulate and eloquent in the sense of Martin King. I think about all the things that happened. And then Martin had turned down the presidency of the Montgomery branch of NAACP because he felt he was just getting to town and he had to, you know, become familiar with -- yet, he accepted the presidency of MI -- of the Montgomery Improvement Association. Why? Once he accepted it, he -- it pulled his whole life. I've seen him weary and tired and worn to a frazzle and still getting on the plane. I've seen you in that same condition. So it may be that there is a motivation that exists within leadership to do that. But I have a feeling, to hurry up and answer your question, that all of us have some obligation to help others as we move along.
BOND: This is a hard question. What do you think is your greatest contribution as a leader?
HOOKS: That is a hard question. I have made a difference. And I say that -- maybe that's not enough modesty. On the bench when I went there, the judges did not believe in suspended sentences, although the statute gave us the right to. The four judges who were sitting on the criminal court bench had not ran it between them. Three suspended sentences in ten years. My first month on the bench, I granted seven by myself and faced the wrath of the newspaper. Over a period of years my philosophy has taken a hold in the courts, and now we see a tendency. If somebody, maybe a drunk driver, a kid in college, high school, why should we just send them to jail with no chance of rehabilitation? Another kind of thing. I've seen a quality of mercy in the criminal court that did not exist before. When I went to the FCC, there was no attention being paid particularly to the race issues. I've seen that change.
At the NAACP, I was able to help to solidify the structure, started a corporate campaign, buy the first building it had, institute some great programs which are still being carried on, building membership to its highest peak, and leave it intact, unsullied and unstained. In my church life I've been able to do some worthwhile things. And so if I've made any contribution at all, it's been hard and steady work, I thank God. And it's -- if I look at all the black-owned television stations, I look at these national anchors on television, when I look at the change that has come about because of NAACP fighting Hollywood -- you know, they don't thank us for it. I understand that. But the old image awards started by the Beverly Hill branch of Hollywood and the NAACP more than thirty years ago, breaking down doors, knocking down doors, now you see black people starring everywhere. Some of them can't spell NAACP. And being able to put the image awards on television, you know, was a big thing in my career. There are a lot of things I've been involved in that I'm very happy to have been a part of. And I don't know whether I'm able to say any one of them was greater than others. But I think that if I've had any success, it's been that I've been sort of single-mindedly devoted to whatever job I had at that point, doing the very best I can.
BOND: Very quickly, because we have about five minutes -- looking about you, do you see a crisis in leadership today in black America? Some people do. Cornel West says that there's a crisis of leadership in that present leadership is distant from much of the people that it purports to serve.
HOOKS: Well, I don't think I see it, but I see a change in leadership. When I came along in my early days in Tennessee, there was not a single black congressman in the South. No black people serving as state representatives. There's been a shift in role. Therefore, the one Roy Wilkins, the one, what's his name? A Martin King, and the one this or that no longer exists and perhaps shouldn't. White people don't say who is the leader of the white community ever. Any number of them. Ted Kennedy's a leader of a certain number. Daschle is the leader of certain -- Bush -- so in Memphis now we've got seven members of the city commission, six members of the county commission. We've got about nine people on the state -- in the state legislature -- I mean, about five people in the state legislature. About eighteen judges right there in Shelby County. Four members of the board of education. All of these people are leaders and most of them are close to their people. Now then you've got a mayor who happens to be black, who is more or less the leader of the city. And he's got to keep close to the people if he wants to be re-elected. A black congressman right there in our city of Shelby County. And that can be replicated all over the South, and the North for that matter. So I think that we have an abundance of leaders that we didn't have at one time. And you can't expect one person to be the paramount or ultimate leader when you've got all these people. And so what we're trying to do in Tennessee -- and I think somewhat successfully, I hope you can do it everywhere -- is to bring the leaders together in sort of a leadership conference, or council to work with some common goals.