Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Social Consciousness: Race

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.