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Sunset for Dr. Benjamin Hooks

April 16, 2010

The last time I spoke to Dr. Benjamin Hooks was in January by cell phone. I was attending the NAACP Image Awards press conference in Los Angeles where FedEx was being recognized as a sponsor. As media teams gathered, an NAACP official stopped to say hello. Knowing that I was from Memphis, he asked when was the last time I had seen Dr. Hooks. I replied that it had been some months ago at the National Civil Rights Museum’s Freedom Awards. Out of the clear blue, the NAACP official whipped out his cell phone and dialed Dr. Hooks’s number. “Hey Dr. Hooks,” he said. “I’ve got Janas from Memphis here with me at the press conference. She’s with FedEx.” Then, he handed me the phone.

I said, “Hello Dr. Hooks, how are you?” I then heard his warm, friendly voice on the other end. “I’m doing well,” he said. He probably had no idea who I was, but that didn’t matter. He treated everyone like an old friend. “I hope all is well with you,” he continued. “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to travel to the Image Awards this year but I know it’s going to be great. Please tell the people at FedEx how much we appreciate their support. I really wish I could be there….”

That was the last time I heard the voice of this dynamic civil rights champion. As a kid growing up in Memphis, I was familiar with his milestone achievements and his speeches were unforgettable. When I was a teenager, I was at a banquet one night and heard Dr. Hooks issue a call to everyone to get involved in community service. “I don’t care if you went to Morehouse or No House!” he said. The next day, I volunteered for the Headstart program. I’d seen photos of him in modern-day history books as a foot soldier in the Civil Rights Movement and I recalled his appointment as the first African-American commissioner on the FCC. His significant contributions as executive director of the NAACP inspired me, and I was delighted when the main branch of the Memphis Public Library paid tribute to his legacy by naming its new location after him.

As a member of the FedEx Global Citizenship team, it was always a pleasure to chat with him during our sponsorships of NAACP programs and the National Civil Rights Museum’s Freedom Awards. He always had great things to say about FedEx and our commitment to giving back to the communities we serve. And despite his national prominence, he came across as a genuinely nice guy who practiced what he preached when it came to treating all people with dignity and respect.

As people of various races and backgrounds reflect on his legacy, many will have old and new stories to share. However, one memory that brings a smile to the face of those who knew him was his consistency in ending every program with the singing of “We Shall Overcome.” It didn’t matter what had gone on before the program ended —  it was absolutely imperative to him that we stop and sing that battle hymn from the Civil Rights Movement. So everyone in the room – African-Americans, Caucasians, Hispanics and Asians — had to hold on to one another and sing. You see, Dr. Hooks played a pivotal role in helping to ensure that all Americans were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This picture of unity and diversity was a symbol of something special to him. It was hope. It was progress. It was a sweet sunset after a long day.

May he rest in peace.    

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