Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Early Development

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.

BOND: Sure.

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.

BOND: Sure.

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.