Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People

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 --

BOND: Re-segregated.

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.