NAACP Leader, Benjamin Hooks Dies at 85

Colleagues reflect on the life and legacy of NAACP leader Benjamin Hooks and his advocacy work for media ownership.


The Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, who in addition to serving for 15 years as director of the NAACP was the first African American member of the Federal Communications Commission, died Thursday in his Memphis hometown, the Commercial Appeal reported. He was 85 and “had long suffered from various illnesses,” the paper said.

“Black people were bereft of representation in the media,” Hooks told the Memphis newspaper in 2004, speaking of his tenure on the FCC board.

“At the FCC, they knew things were wrong,” Hooks said. “There just hadn’t been anything done about it.” (Credit: Museum of Broadcast Communications)

In 1972 not a single TV station in the country was owned by a black person and only 13 radio stations. People don’t realize how powerful the regulatory agencies are. They have the power to make real social change. When I was with the FCC [it] was a time of great change and significance. The country was beginning to recognize that black people had a right to employment in broadcasting, and we had to make sure that the top jobs would be available to them.”

When Hooks left in 1978, there were more than 200 black-owned stations of the 7,000 in the nation.

“He was my role model,” Tyrone Brown, who succeeded Hooks and became the second African American on the FCC, told Journal-isms, “in terms of the major issues and in how to try to bring people together politically. Ben was a Republican – people forget that. . . . But he addressed issues not as a flag waver but to try to move the ball a few yards on each play.”

The FCC chairman who served with Hooks, Richard E. Wiley, echoed that.

“He and I hit it off great,” Wiley, a Republican, told Journal-isms. “We were of different parties and different races and we agreed on most things.  He was very responsible and very careful.” And, added Wiley, who became friends with Hooks and his wife of 50 years, Frances, “if you saw him preach, you’d begin to believe what he believed. He was a real firebrand in the pulpit.”

A look at Hooks’ five years at the agency illuminates how little the intervening decades have affected the issue of radio and television ownership.