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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.

A 2007 study by the media advocacy group Free Press found that while people of color comprise 34 percent of the U.S. population,
they own just 3.15 percent of television stations. Women make up 51 percent of the population, but own just 5.87 percent of television stations.

Yet those changes in technology are a boon to people of color in a way that the advent of radio and television have not been, Brown said.

"That's one of the reasons why the Internet is very important, because in order to develop a service, you don't have to bring . . . hordes of dollars in order to play, you just have to bring new ideas. You will be surprised at the number of young African Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans who are getting ownership in that arena."

As recently as December, Hooks recognized the Internet's power in an opinion piece in the Commercial Appeal: "Here's the problem the FCC must address: Millions of Americans cannot afford high-speed service or worse, cannot even access it," he wrote.

And Reed Hundt, another former FCC commissioner, disclosed last month that the FCC had tilted its policies toward the Internet, at the expense of television, because  the Internet was "certain to be diverse in every conceivable respect and not by dint of regulation - diverse, meaning it would be in every language and every race would be welcome and the content would be . . . generated by people who . . . would choose any points of view; and any kind of ownership of the content would be admissible and any form of ownership of the content would be possible." 

In his five years on the FCC, Hooks also addressed the minority employment statistics for the broadcasting industry, and the image of blacks in the mass media. He also helped to increase the number of African American lawyers at the FCC from three to 150, the Voice of America reported.

"At the FCC, they knew things were wrong. There just hadn't been anything done about it. And there was more willingness to change than people would have thought," Hooks said.

Hooks was a first, and even his waiting room signaled change, as columnist Askia Muhammad wrote in the Washington Informer in 2008. "In an interview, Dr. Hooks told me he always kept copies of Muhammad Speaks in his office waiting room so that everyone who came in could see that his eyes were open to a variety of opinions and perspectives," the columnist wrote.

Hooks supported some policies that have since been reversed or gone out of fashion: The "fairness doctrine" that required equal time for opposing views, regulation of broadcast ownership and enforcement of prohibitions against foul language on the air, for example.

In 2001, he said media companies were not as dominant during his tenure because ownership was limited to seven TV stations and 14 radio stations. "I believe that rule was better for everybody," he said to BlackAmericaWeb.com.

Hooks was on a commission that voted unanimously to deem inappropriate for airing from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. what became known as the "seven dirty words."

As NAACP director, Mr. Hooks told the Washington Times in 1991 that there was a relationship between images conveyed in popular culture and the decline of values, Ronald A. Taylor reported then.

"When we step back far enough to see where we are in our society, this is a violent society," Hooks said. "But white people have been moving away from some of that violence, and I think we [blacks] are going through a phase now. I must confess that I do not have all of the answers I would like to have."

"But, he said, he believes the solution may lie in a return to the kind of family values," Taylor wrote, "the conventional nuclear family structure with gainfully employed parents - expressed in what he described as the 'Southern Baptist morality.'"

Hooks continued to monitor the media as NAACP director. In 1982, the New York Times reported that "Blacks and members of other minority groups trying to get jobs in the film industry will receive a helping hand from Walt Disney Productions, which announced a series of actions to be taken after 10 months of talks with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People."

Hooks was born in 1925 into what he described as "sort of a militant family," Tommy Perkins wrote in the Memphis Business Journal in 2002. "He was the first black judge in the South since Reconstruction, serving first as a Shelby County Criminal Court judge in the 1960s and later on the Special Supreme Court. He was the first black person appointed to the Federal Communications Commission, of which he was later commissioner."

He added, "Hooks says he passed up an opportunity to be the FCC's chairman in 1977 to lead the NAACP out of financial turmoil after its boycott of businesses in a Mississippi town led to a massive recovery judgment against the organization."

In his first news conference at the NAACP, he kidded the television reporters, saying, "In a sense I move from being your supervisor to depending on you."