Lawson Hooks was nominated as a member to the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) by President Richard M. Nixon in 1972. Shortly
thereafter the United States Senate confirmed the nomination and
thus Mr. Hooks became the first African American to be appointed
to the Commission. He served as a member of the FCC until 27 July
his tenure on the Commission, Hooks actively promoted the employment
of African Americans and other minorities in the broadcast industry
as well as at the FCC offices. He also encouraged minority ownership
of broadcast properties. Hooks supported the Equal Time provision
and the Fairness Doctrine, both of which he believed were among
the few avenues available to minorities for gaining access to the
received his undergraduate degree from LeMoyne college in his home
state, Tennessee. However, because Tennessee prohibited Blacks from
entering law school he attended DePaul University in Chicago. He
returned to Tennessee, however, and serve as a public defender in
Shelby County. From 1964 to 1968 he was a county criminal judge.
The nomination and confirmation of Hooks to the FCC represented
the culmination of efforts by African American organizations such
as Black Efforts for Soul on Television (BEST), to have an African
American appointed to one of the seven seats on the Commission.
Before Hooks' appointment there had been no minority representation
on the Commission and only two women, Frieda Henncock and Charlotte
Reid, had been appointed up to that time.
Riding a wave created by the Report of the National Advisory Commission
on Civil Disorders (1968), otherwise known as the Kerner Commission,
which itself was a reaction to the civil unrest of the 1960s, African
American organizations, like BEST, lobbied aggressively for an African
American appointment to the Federal Communications Commission. Under
a section titled "The Negro in the Media" the Kerner Commission
urged that African Americans be integrated "into all aspects of
televised presentations." African American organizations knew that
in order to achieve such a goal representation on the policy making
body that governed broadcasting was critical. However, when it was
announced that Benjamin Hooks was one of three African Americans
considered for a seat on the FCC, BEST expressed some strong reservations
about his candidacy. Leaders of the organization did not believe
that Hooks was qualified to serve on the Commission and instead
favored the appointment of Ted Ledbetter, a Washington, D.C. communications
consultant. The third candidate considered for the position was
Revius Ortique, an attorney from New Orleans. Although there are
no set criteria for qualifying as a candidate for the FCC, it was
believed by BEST that Mr. Hooks did not have the experience or expertise
in broadcasting necessary to be an effective commissioner. In fact,
Benjamin Hooks, while far from being an industry insider, was not
entirely new to broadcasting.
In addition to being a lawyer and minister, Hooks had been a popular
local television personality before being considered for the FCC
post. He hosted a weekly half-hour program, Conversations in Black
and White on station WMC-TV in Memphis. He had also appeared
as a panelist on a broadcast of the program What is Your Faith?
which aired on WREC-TV in Memphis. The presence of Hooks on the
commission meant that organizations previously outside of the policy
making process in broadcasting finally had access. The National
Media Coalition, Citizens Communications Center and the United Church
of Christ all felt that their cases would at least get a fair hearing,
because of Hooks.
he was a spokesman for the perspectives of Blacks, women and Latinos
with respect to broadcasting policies, relations between Hooks and
these groups were not always friendly. Two of his decisions while
on the commission stand out as especially difficult for Hooks. The
first was his vote to uphold the First Amendment and not censor
a political candidate for the U.S. Senate in the Georgia primary.
As part of his political campaign, senatorial candidate J. B. Stoner
produced and aired television and radio spots that referred to African
Americans as "niggers." Understandably, African Americans and other
groups, wanted the spots banned by the FCC. Hooks, however, felt
that supporting freedom of speech was more important than banning
the spots. In a New York Times interview he suggested that "even
if it hurts sometimes, I'm a great believer in free speech and would
never do anything to tamper with it." He argued that in the long
run, banning the spots would prove more detrimental to Blacks and
other groups, than allowing them to air.
second major decision during his stint on the FCC involved broadcasters
and the rules related to Equal Employment Opportunities (EEO). Prior
to 1976 stations with five or more employees were required to file
a statistical report, including the number of employees by race
and gender, with the Commission. In 1976 the Commission proposed
a change in this policy. Only those stations with a specific number
of employees, higher than in the past, would be required to file
a statistical report outlining the station's employees by race.
However, the new policy also required an EEO program that would
provide a strategy for increasing minority representation at the
stations. Citizen's groups felt the FCC was easing its restrictions
regarding minority hiring practices on smaller stations. They asked
Commissioner Hooks not to support the new policy. Hooks, however,
decided that the new rules would, overall, have a positive impact
on the hiring of minorities and women and supported them except
for the section no longer requiring stations with less than fifty
employees to file EEO programs.
Hooks served on the Commission broadcast ownership groups that included
minorities were given preferential treatment by the FCC, an office
of Equal Employment Opportunity was set up, and the employment of
Blacks by the Federal Communications Commission offices increased.
After serving five years of his seven year term, Benjamin Hooks
resigned from the FCC to become the head of the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His plans were to
establish a communications department in the NAACP in order "to
see how we can make television more responsive to the people, black
Benjamin L. Hooks
Photo courtesy of Broadcasting and Cable
appointment of Dr. Hooks must be seen as one part of a long history
of demands for access to the broadcast media by African Americans.
While African Americans had always been part of the "television
family," their roles had too often been limited to stereotypical
portrayals that were thought to contribute to distorted images of
the Black experience. Organizing and lobbying for an African American
appointment to the FCC was a continuation of a political and social
process. The appointment of Benjamin Hooks symbolized a crystallization
of those efforts, and while it would be incorrect to state that
with his appointment all barriers to minority access were knocked
down, it would be equally incorrect not to recognized that the appointment
of Benjamin Hooks did lead to increased access for African Americans
and other minorities in the field of broadcasting.
BENJAMIN (LAWSON) HOOKS. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.A.,
31 January 1925. Studied at LeMoyne College, Memphis, 1941-43; Howard
University, Washington, D.C., 1943-44; De Paul University, Chicago,
J.D. 1948. Married: Frances Dancy, 1951; one daughter. Admitted
to the Tennessee Bar, 1948; private law practice, Memphis, 1949-65;
ordained minister, from 1956; assistant public defender, 1961-64;
judge, Division IV, Criminal Court of Shelby County, Tennessee,
1966-68; appointed as first African-American commissioner, Federal
Communications Commission, 1972-78; executive director, National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), 1978-93;
television producer, Conversations in Black and White; co-producer,
Forty Percent Speaks; television panelist, What is Your
Faith?. Member: Board of directors, Southern Christian Leadership
Conference, Tennessee Council on Human Relations, Memphis and Shelby
County, Tennessee Human Relations Commission; Martin Luther King,
Jr. Federal Holiday Commission; president, National Civil Rights
Museum, Memphis, Tennessee; senior vice-president, Chapman Company,
Memphis, Tennessee, from 1993. Member, American Bar Association,
National Bar Association (judicial council member), Tennessee Bar
Association. Recipient: Springarn Award, NAACP, 1986.
"Hooks Calls For Return To 'Bad Old Days.'" Broadcasting
(Washington, D.C.), 23 January 1989.
"In the Matter of Clarence Thomas." The Black Scholar (Oakland,
California), Winter 1991.
from Some of Dr. Hooks' Speeches." The Crisis (New York),
Jannette L. "Public Television." In, Dates, Jannette L., and William
Barlow, editors. Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media.
Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1990.
Gerald V., editor. Commissioners of the FCC: 1927-1994. Lanham,
Maryland: University Press of America, Inc., 1995.
Henry, Diane. "Sophisticated 'Country Preacher.'" The New York
Times, 8 November 1976.
Chester A. Sr. "Meet Benjamin Lawson Hooks--A Passionate Fighter
for Justice." The Crisis (New York), January 1993.
Walter. "Black Leadership at the Crossroads." Ebony (Chicago,
Illinois), February 1984.
James D. "Dr. Hooks Heats Up the 83rd NAACP Convention and Bids
Farewell." The Crisis (New York), August-September 1992.