Benjamin Hooks' Dashed GOP Dreams

The late NAACP president hoped to win over blacks to the Republican Party by backing Howard Baker for president. A Hollywood actor won instead.

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It's hard to make pancakes with your right arm broken and useless in a sling.

It was 90 degrees and humid in Miami Beach, even though it was just 7:30 in the morning. Frances Hooks was struggling to fix breakfast in the kitchen of their hotel suite during the NAACP annual convention in 1980. Breakfast was the only quiet time Ben Hooks would have that day for a protracted interview; but he didn't cook and a one-armed Frances was having a hard time.

So we changed roles: I cooked breakfast, Frances manned the tape recorder, and Ben Hooks set the table and talked about the changing role of blacks in national politics. Blacks needed to be represented in both political parties, he said, though that would work only if both parties really wanted black support.

''We're at a crossroads,'' he mused. ''There is a slight chance that the Republican Party can really offer something to black folks. If Howard Baker wins the nomination, that's something I could work for. If Reagan wins, it's an opportunity lost.''

Hooks was prepared to take a leave of absence from the helm of the NAACP and actively campaign for Sen. Baker, a long-time political ally who had become a family friend. In those years, the NAACP chapters provided the manpower for most civil rights campaigns, and Hooks said he would try to mobilize those ground troops for a Republican presidential campaign.

It would really shake things up, he said, if blacks had a real say in the workings and platforms of both major political parties. The implications for the future could not be calculated. Under Richard Nixon, the Republican Party had launched its Southern strategy: opposing affirmative action, civil rights and labor-oriented legislation, and progressive programs in general. It was, in Hooks' view, a genteel version of the racist politics of the past.

If Baker won, he said, there was a chance for progress with both parties making the political and economic enfranchisement of blacks a priority.

But Baker was a long shot. He was a star of the progressive ''Rockefeller Wing'' who was battling the telegenic Ronald Reagan for the presidential nomination in an increasingly conservative, anti-black, Southern-oriented GOP. Hooks knew Baker from his early days as one of the few black attorneys in Western Tennessee, back in the days when black lawyers walked into the court house via the back door along with the rest of the ''coloreds.''

''We weren't entirely on different sides of the fence,'' recalled Baker. ''Ben was initially a Republican during the Eisenhower era.'' Hooks switched parties during the administration of Frank G. Clement, one of the few Southern governors to back desegregation. It was a time when many blacks were Republican, a legacy of the Party of Lincoln that had begun to crumble with the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Hooks had become the state's first black criminal court judge, and Baker said ''he was a man of stature, courage and determination.''