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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Benjamin L. Hooks: Bold Civil Rights Pioneer, NAACP Leader Dead @ 85

Benjamin L. Hooks, Civil Rights Leader, Dies @ 85

Benjamin L. Hooks, a golden-tongued Orator who led of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 16 years, died Thursday at the age of 85.State Rep. Ulysses Jones, a member of the church where Mr. Hooks was pastor, said the civil rights leader died at his home in Memphis, following a long illness, The Associated Press reported.

While best known for leading the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights group, Mr. Hooks had a varied career that bridged the often disparate worlds of black and white America. He was a Baptist minister who headed two churches. He was a lawyer and a criminal court judge — the first black to be appointed to the bench in his native Tennessee. He was the first of his race to be named to the five-member Federal Communications Commission. And he was a businessman who years ago owned several fried chicken franchises in Memphis.

“He’s had an amazing career,” said Julian Bond, a former head of the Atlanta branch of the N.A.A.C.P., “judge, F.C.C. commissioner, minister of churches in two different cities at the same time, businessman, head of the N.A.A.C.P. Most people do one or two things in their lifetimes. He’s just done an awful lot.”

He was also an inspirational leader whose oratory was reminiscent of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference which had Mr. Hooks as one of its board members. Mixing quotations from Shakespeare or Keats with the cadence and idioms of his native Mississippi Delta, Mr. Hooks’ speeches thrilled his largely black following.

“There is a beauty in it and a power in it,” Mr. Hooks once said of his and other black preachers’ speaking style.

In 2007, President George W. Bush presented Mr. Hooks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the country’s highest civilian honors.

Still, Mr. Hooks had his share of disappointments. His businesses went bankrupt. Under his leadership the N.A.A.C.P. was forced to fight several debilitating rear-guard actions against the Reagan and Bush Administrations, which sought to overturn gains made in the 1960’s and 1970’s. At the same time the organization floundered under the weight of declining membership, shaky finances and an image of being outmoded and increasingly irrelevant.

For some who have watched the N.A.A.C.P. over the years, Mr. Hooks came to symbolize one of its major problems: leaders from an older generation unwilling or unable to adapt to modern times and changed political circumstances.

“Ben took over the organization at a transitional stage and he wasn’t really the person to take it over at the time,” said Paul Delaney, chairman of the Department of Journalism at the University of Alabama who covered the N.A.A.C.P. for The New York Times for several years.

Despite the setbacks, Mr. Hooks, a devout man given to introspection, did not lose hope, trusting in a God he believed was good and a cause — the advancement of African Americans — he felt was just. “I have fought the good fight,” he said in his valedictory to the N.A.A.C.P. in 1992. “I have kept the faith.”

Benjamin Lawson Hooks was born Jan. 31, 1925, in Memphis. With his father’s photography business providing a stable middle-class grounding, Mr. Hooks attended LeMoyne College in Memphis. After serving three years in the Army during World War II and rising to staff sergeant, Mr. Hooks attended law school at DePaul University in Chicago, graduating in 1948.

In 1951, while working as a lawyer in Memphis, he wed Frances Dancy, a high-spirited, fun-loving woman whose friends could not believe she was marrying such a straight arrow. After all, when they dated, Mr. Hooks made her agree that if they went to a dance one night, the next date had to include a civic meeting or a church social.

A deeply religious man, Mr. Hooks earned the nickname “Jacob” as a teen-ager because of his keen interest in Bible studies. An ordained Baptist minister, he has long been the resident minister at two churches — one in Detroit and the other in Memphis. His love of the ministry was such that he insisted on preaching a sermon at some church — his own or someone else’s — every Sunday, even during his time on the F.C.C. and at the N.A.A.C.P.

“My life was built around being in those pulpits on Sunday,” Mr. Hooks said in an interview.

In 1972, Mr. Hooks was appointed by President Richard Nixon to the F.C.C. He immediately set out to expand the opportunities for Minorities to obtain broadcast licenses, convincing the Small Business Administration to end restrictions on loans to broadcast and news businesses, and expanding the program of granting tax breaks to those who sold radio or television stations to minorities.

Interestingly, while seeking to broaden opportunities for minorities in the broadcast arena, Mr. Hooks also sided with the corporate giant AT&T in its fight to shut out upstart companies like MCI o from long distance telephone services.

When Mr. Carter won the Presidency in November 1976, Mr. Hooks was so widely thought to be in line to head the F.C.C. that some commissioners began calling him “Mr. Chairman.” But when asked by the N.A.A.C.P. board to take over the helm of the organization from an ailing Roy Wilkins, he decided that that would be the more interesting and prestigious job.

Replacing Mr. Wilkins, a guiding light of the civil rights movement, in July 1977, Mr. Hooks tried to steer the association through some of its most difficult years.

Twelve of his 16 years as executive director of the association coincided with the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, whose Administrations were openly hostile to the political, economic and social agendas of civil rights groups.

Mr. Hooks also had to cope with a changed political climate in which whites were less enthusiastic about spending on social programs, and had become openly antagonisitic toward N.A.A.C.P. goals like school busing to achieve racial balance and preference programs for blacks in the areas of employment and college admissions.

“I’ve had the misfortune of serving eight years under Reagan and three under Bush,” Mr. Hooks said in 1992. “It makes a great deal of difference about your expectations. We’ve had to get rid of a lot of programs we had hoped for, so we could fight to save what we already had.”

In taking over from the dour Mr. Wilkins, an intellectual and strategist, Mr. Hooks hoped to breathe life into the N.A.A.C.P. He instituted several programs to appeal to younger blacks, including the Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics, known as Act-So, an annual talent competition that involves more than 150,000 teen-agers throughout the country.

In a sharp departure from past heads of the rights organization, he sought to forge closer ties with Americans corporations. He testified before Congress on behalf of measures to limit imports, which he saw as a threat to jobs held by blacks, and he managed to increase the amount of money raised by the N.A.A.C.P. from corporate donors, to $3.7 million in 1993 from $696,000 in 1978.

Despite his achievements, friends and detractors alike say Mr. Hooks merely held the line, failing to modernize and build the N.A.A.C.P. into a more effective organization that could better cope with the increasingly contentious environment that surrounded civil rights issues in the 1980’s and 90’s.

A poor manager who hated to delegate tasks, Mr. Hooks resisted attempts, until his final two years in office, to hire a strong deputy to help with administration. Distrustful of modern research techniques like polling and focus groups, Mr. Hooks could not come up with a strategy to make the N.A.A.C.P. seem relevant to the large numbers of younger, college-educated blacks who attained middle-class status in the 1970’s and 80’s. As a result, membership stagnated at around 400,000, revenue from memberships declined and the average age of members increased.

“Ben lacked a sense of understanding of what his marketplace was, what he was selling, or how you sell in this economy,” said George Carter, who served as Mr. Hooks’ deputy for two years. “He had very little sense that there are ways to sell yourself and get high yields. As a result, we could have had a much better, much more professional approach to raising money through memberships.”

Reflecting the social and sexual conservatism of his black Baptist roots, Mr. Hooks for years resisted entreaties to have the association take a strong position on preventing the spread of AIDS, which was a growing threat to inner city blacks. In was not until the basketball star Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he was infected with the AIDS virus that Mr. Hooks relented and allowed the organization to support programs like condom distribution in schools and health clinics.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hooks was constantly battling his board over who would run the organization’s day-to-day operations. In 1978, five months after taking the job, Mr. Hooks threatened to quit when the board refused to approve his hiring of a chief aide and refused to pay the travel expenses of his wife, who frequently accompanied him.

In 1983, Mr. Hooks was suspended by the board’s chairwoman, Margaret Bush Wilson, a lawyer from St. Louis, who asserted that Mr. Hooks was mismanaging the organization. Mr. Hooks emerged the victor in the power struggle when the board voted to reinstate him and to strip Ms. Wilson of her powers.

But nine years later, in the winter of 1992, Mr. Hooks again became embroiled in a fight with the board, this time under the chairmanship of William Gibson, a dentist from South Carolina, over the day-to-day running of the organization. When the board backed Mr. Gibson, Mr. Hooks had little choice but to resign.

He is survived by his wife and a daughter, Patricia Gray.

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Charlotte Schools Block Black Kids From Attending AP Classes

Students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg's high-poverty schools face an "opportunity gap" in access to college-level classes, says a report from a citizen advisory panel being presented today.

Students at several low-poverty suburban schools can choose from more than 20 Advanced Placement subjects this school year, while students at four high-poverty schools have fewer than 10, the report says.

The Equity Committee, appointed by the school board, spent the past year looking at Advanced Placement along with services for students who don't speak English well. The recommendations, designed to boost equal opportunity, are likely to clash with budget-cutting plans.

For instance, the panel recommends that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools do more to increase AP offerings at the high-poverty schools, where most students are Black or Hispanic.

The panel also calls for more Minority enrollment in AP courses at all schools. But a consultant advising CMS on the likelihood of budget cuts for 2010-11 has suggested cutting some AP classes with low enrollment to focus on boosting basic skills.

"We're just in challenging times right now," said board Vice Chair Tom Tate. "I think that the board is going to have some pretty interesting debate on this."

AP Challenge

AP offerings range from 25 subjects at South Mecklenburg High to seven at Waddell, the report says. Even at schools such as Mallard Creek High and Northwest School of the Arts, which have large numbers of middle-class black students, AP classes are disproportionately white.

Taking AP classes can help students get into competitive universities, and students who earn high scores on the exams can get college credit. "The lack of a diverse range of core and elective AP courses at all schools raises serious equity concerns," the report says.

CMS offers other college-level options, including classes hosted by Central Piedmont Community College and advanced classes in International Baccalaureate magnets. The report did not look at those.

High-poverty high schools tend to have lower enrollments and more students struggling to meet graduation requirements, both of which can make it challenging to fill AP classes. For instance, Waddell offered 10 options on its "enrollment card" last winter but ended up only teaching seven, the report says.

But those schools also have successful college-bound students. The equity panel recommends offering a set number of AP courses at each school, even if enrollment is low, and urges schools to "actively recruit and place students in those courses."

The report says white students make up 37 percent of CMS's high-school students but account for 62 percent those taking of AP exams. Minority students may be hindered by home support, peer culture or low expectations in lower grades, the report says. Recommendations range from recruiting AP teachers "of various ethnic backgrounds" to "cluster(ing) students of racial groups in AP courses in order to provide peer support."

Language Barrier

On students with limited English skills, the report notes that some schools have so many that students may not be immersed in spoken English, while others have so few that it's tough to provide adequate staff support for kids and families.

CMS has eliminated jobs for bilingual parent advocates, even as the number of students whose families speak Spanish and other languages has grown. The committee recommends restoring those jobs at schools with large numbers of families who need translation, noting that parent involvement is essential to student success.

The report describes a visit to Merry Oaks Elementary, where 19 languages are spoken, most children come from low-income homes, and some students "not only don't speak English but may not have any experience with indoor bathrooms or electricity." Committee members saw a woman arrive to enroll a young child, who did most of the translating between his mother and the school secretary. Two hours later, the child and his mother "were still trying to navigate the enrollment process," it says.

The report urges CMS to make sure schools make better use of available translation services and make it easier for families without cars to get to the Family Application Center south of uptown, where international students must register.

City buses used to run along that road, the report says, but no longer do.

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Notre Dame Has First Black Valedictorian

A Gary, Indiana native will make history next month as the first Black Valedictorian from the University of Notre Dame.

Katie Washington, 21, is a Biology major and minor in Catholic social teaching with a 4.0 GPA.

“I am humbled,” said Washington to the Northwest Indiana Times.

"I am in a mode of gratitude and thanksgiving right now".

University officials said they couldn’t recall ever having a Black Valedictorian, and don’t keep record of their race.

The valedictorian has been accepted to five schools, including Harvard, but she plans to pursue a joint M.D./Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, according to

"Katie works so hard," Washington’s mother Jean Tomlin said. "I told her when she went to Notre Dame, 'You are representing your family, your church and the city of Gary. Make us proud.'"

She has definitely made her family proud and is following in their footsteps. Her father is a Doctor, her mother and sister are Nurses, one brother is completing his residency and another brother who works for British Petroleum.

"I have had so much support, people who really wanted to see that I reached my full potential,” Washington told

"They all had my best interest at heart".

Washington will address the class of 2010 at commencement on May 16.

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Sources: NY Times, C-Span, University of Virginia, NAACP, Youtube, NBC Chicago, MSNBC, McClatchy Newspapers, Notre Dame University, Google Maps

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