HOOKS, BENJAMIN LAWSON

U.S. Media Regulator

Benjamin 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 1977.

During 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 broadcast media.

Hooks 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.

Although 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.

The 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.

While 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 and white."


Benjamin L. Hooks

Photo courtesy of Broadcasting and Cable

The 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.

-Raul D. Tovares

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.

PUBLICATIONS

"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.

"Excerpts from Some of Dr. Hooks' Speeches." The Crisis (New York), January 1993.

FURTHER READING

Dates, 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.

Flannery, 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.

Higgins, Chester A. Sr. "Meet Benjamin Lawson Hooks--A Passionate Fighter for Justice." The Crisis (New York), January 1993.

Leavy, Walter. "Black Leadership at the Crossroads." Ebony (Chicago, Illinois), February 1984.

Williams, James D. "Dr. Hooks Heats Up the 83rd NAACP Convention and Bids Farewell." The Crisis (New York), August-September 1992.

 

See also Federal Communications Commission