With Black History Month coming to a close, many have spent the past weeks reflecting on the nation's civil rights movement and its leaders, including many who were active in the Mid-South.
One of the best-known, local civil rights pioneers is Memphis native Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks, who died nearly four years ago at age 85 and is buried at historic Elmwood Cemetery. Six miles away at the University of Memphis, Hooks' legacy lives on at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, which works to teach, study and promote civil rights and social change.
The Institute's mission is reflected in its broad range of activities, which includes conducting research, hosting conferences and lectures, and promoting and honoring scholarship on civil and human rights.
"We're using an academic platform to support community engagement, " said Daphene R. McFerren, who has served as the institute's director since 2008.
Education and activism defined the life of Hooks, who was born in Memphis in 1925. He studied pre-law at LeMoyne-Owen College before serving his country in World War II. During the war, Hooks found himself guarding Italian prisoners who were permitted to eat in restaurants that were off limits to him. He resolved to devote his life to fighting bigotry.
Hooks opened his own law firm, becoming Tennessee's first black criminal court judge and, later, the first African-American appointed to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
An ordained Baptist minister, Hooks frequently preached about social justice and became a pioneer of restaurant sit-ins and other boycotts organized by the NAACP, an organization he would later lead.
His great-nephew, Brent Hooks, says his uncle had an uncanny knack for storytelling.
"That's an ability of great leaders – to be able to capture a crowd through storytelling," he said. "The humor within his storytelling made you feel like you were close to him, no matter who you were."
Dr. Hooks was also a staunch advocate of self-help, telling the 1990 NAACP convention delegates, "I'm calling for a moratorium on excuses. I challenge black America today, all of us, to set aside our alibis."
Dr. Hooks spent his later years encouraging both the study of the American Civil Rights Movement and the identification of contemporary issues that continue to affect minorities and the poor.
The Hooks Institute was established in 1996 when Dr. Hooks donated his personal papers, which spanned his career as lawyer, civil rights activist and judge, to the University of Memphis. Today, Special Collections – part of the University of Memphis Libraries – houses almost 400 boxes of his letters, which have been made accessible to the public.
"The Institute has gone from the donation of his papers to a mission of preserving the history of the civil rights movement, but also being actively engaged in the issues that affect our communities today," said McFerren, a Yale graduate and Harvard-educated attorney, who initially came to the Hooks Institute as a visiting scholar and whose own parents were civil rights leaders in Fayette County.
The Institute's achievements include the creation of several civil rights documentaries, including "Freedom's Front Line: Fayette County, TN" and most recently, "Duty of the Hour," which centers on the life of Dr. Hooks. "The Memphis 13," which tells the story of the integration of Memphis City Schools, was funded in part by the Institute.
The Hooks Institute also honors authors through its Hooks Institute National Book Award, bestowed each year on a book that best furthers the legacy of the American Civil Rights Movement.
Community outreach includes Splash Mid-South, a program focused on increasing swimming competency among minority youths, who statistically have the highest drowning rates. Partners in that program include Methodist-Le Bonheur Health Care, YMCA of the Mid-South, Tiger Swimming, Safe Kids Mid-South and the City of Memphis.
The Hooks Institute has also been involved in voter registration drives, having registered 286 university students in six hours during the last presidential election, and in increasing financial literacy among low-income people by working with nonprofits such as the Memphis-based RISE Foundation.
McFerren said the Institute continues to support civil rights scholarship through faculty research, fellowships and conferences and symposia where research is shared with the public.
"The Hooks Institute carries on the legacy of civil rights and human rights activism exemplified in the lives of Benjamin Hooks, Russell Sugarmon, Maxine Smith, our parents, and other known and unknown activists, who dedicated their lives to improving the welfare of others," McFarren said.
"Improving the status of others is part of the human condition; it will never go away," she continued. "We need vigilance in observing and monitoring what's going on in our community and in broader society, and that's what the Hooks Institute does."
(Visit www.memphis.edu/benhooks to learn more.)
NOTE: The Hooks Institute will host a gala, "Join Hands for Change," Saturday, April 26th at 7 p.m. at the Hotel Memphis, 2625 Thousand Oaks Blvd. The event will highlight the American Civil Rights Movement's influence on fashion, music and culture, and will honor Beverly Robertson, president of the National Civil Rights Museum.