Former NAACP leader recalls days with King, past struggles

Rani Gupta

On the last night of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. almost failed to take the stage in Memphis, Tenn. But in the middle of a raging storm, King fought fatigue to deliver one of his most powerful speeches.

“I thought I knew Martin King,” former NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks told about 100 people Friday night in Alice Millar Chapel. “But on that night he spoke with more pathos, power and passion than I’ve ever heard. I had no way of knowing this would be the last speech he gave on this earth.”

Hooks reflected on his involvement in the civil rights movement and his time with King during an forum sponsored by Alpha Phi Alpha, King’s fraternity.

At the time of his death, King and Hooks were supporting a sanitation worker’s strike in Memphis that had wider implications for civil rights.

“Ordinarily they have signs calling for shorter hours, bigger wages, more humane conditions,” Hooks said. “But these men had signs hanging in front and back that simply said, ‘I am a man.'”

During his last days, Hooks said King talked increasingly about his own mortality and the struggles ahead. At the time, Hooks had viewed this perspective as pessimistic, given the advances of the 1950s and 1960s.

After reflecting on the continuing civil rights struggles, Hooks agreed with King’s assessment of the situation.

“Dr. King kept saying there would be dark and difficult days,” Hooks said. “Well Dr. King, you were right. We had some dark and difficult days.”

But Hooks said he also has witnessed considerable progress during his years leading the civil rights movement. He noted blacks have attained positions in the Cabinet, held leadership roles in major companies and served as mayors of major cities – advancements that seemed unfathomable fifty years ago.

“To my black brothers and sisters: Don’t go and say that things are worse than they’ve ever been,” Hooks said. “If you tell your child that Martin Luther King died in vain, no wonder he’s walking around with his hat on backwards and his pants hanging down.”

Hooks also discussed his views on affirmative action, which have been affected by his association with the civil rights movement. Although some people portray affirmative action as promoting less qualified workers, Hooks said the policy provides opportunities for people who face unfair discrimination.

“Affirmative action was never designed to take a man or a woman who couldn’t cut down a tree and make them a brain surgeon,” he said. “Affirmative action was designed to break down the networks that keep people out. It was designed to open doors, give people a chance.”

Hooks questioned the motives of people like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who he said was “born from the womb of affirmative action and now wants to turn back the clock.”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” Hooks said.

Toward the end of the event, Hooks’ soft, unhurried speech grew loud and animated.

“The dream will not die unless you kill it,” he said. “You’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. Dr. King decided he wanted to be part of the solution.”