Busing Worked For Me

In the Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 the issue of busing, for school integration, was raised. The morning following the debate, Good Morning America reported that during the debate, there was a spike in tweets about busing. There were, likely, tweets both in favor of and against busing. I had a personal reaction to the issue because I, too, was a little girl who was bused to school for the purpose of integration.

As a first grader in September of 1967, I was among the third class of students to participate in the Urban-Suburban Interdistrict Transfer Program in Rochester, New York. In 1963, The New York State Commissioner of Education asked school districts statewide to report on racial imbalance in their schools and to develop a plan to reduce the imbalance. While most districts reported that racial imbalance was not a problem in their schools, the West Irondequoit School District, which had very few minority students, decided it wanted to give its students opportunities for cross-cultural interactions. In February of 1965, the West Irondequoit School District Board unanimously passed a resolution to voluntarily welcome minority students from the Rochester Public School System. The New York State Department of Education provided program funding for the first 24 first grade students to enroll in West Irondequoit schools in September of 1965. My sister was among that first group. Thus, began the first voluntary busing program in the United States.

Irondequoit High School, National Honor Society, Class of 1979. Rochester, NY
Irondequoit High School, National Honor Society, Class of 1979, Rochester, NY.
Rorie Trammel, second row, third from the right.

The Urban-Suburban program was voluntary on two fronts: school districts voluntarily voted to participate, and Rochester City Schools parents voluntarily chose to participate in the program. All was not perfect when those first students arrived on buses in West Irondequoit. While the school board was committed to the value of intercultural interactions, there were, not surprisingly, some residents who were not as welcoming. The Urban-Suburban parents were prepared, however. Mothers took time off work to ride the buses with their children. Disturbances such as rock throwing at the buses soon disappeared and the educational experiment was underway.

The Urban-Suburban program implemented several special strategies to help make our time as “educational residents” of Irondequoit a positive experience. Mothers of resident students were asked to volunteer to be room mothers for those of us who were bused to the school. I recall that most of my Irondequoit friends’ mothers were stay-at-home mothers, while the mothers of those of us who were bused worked outside of the home. That meant that if something happened to us during the school day, it wasn’t easy for them to come to the school That’s where the room mothers stepped in. From first grade through fourth grade, my room mother was Mrs. Maley, the mother of my new friend, Linda Maley. I loved Mrs. Maley and the Maley family. In fact, after I discovered that if I forgot my lunch, I would get to walk home with Linda to have a freshly prepared lunch made and set out lovingly by Mrs. Maley, I started to “forget” my lunch on purpose! In elementary school, when we wanted to participate in after school activities such as Brownies and Girl Scouts, there were friends who welcomed us into their homes until our parents could pick us up after work. Mary Lynne Barker, to whom I assigned the nickname “Favorite”, in first grade was that friend for me. In high school, the Urban-Suburban program provided an early bus and late bus that enable us to participate in activities such as band and sports teams. We had sleepovers and attended birthday parties at our Irondequoit friends’ homes. Many of my Irondequoit friends ventured “into the city” to attend my 9th birthday party.

In the teen years, however, there were some socialization limitations. White teens and African American teens had different interests, listened to different music, and had different thoughts about social issues of the times. I had my white “school friends” and my African American “neighborhood friends”. In school I felt some isolation when, because of the small number of African American students in each cohort, I was usually the only African American in each of my classes and in activities like band and the National Honor Society. I looked forward to lunch time when I would get to interact with other African American students.

Even as a child, I knew that being in Urban-Suburban was a great opportunity. When I was in middle school, I was asked to participate in a group of African American and white students created by the Urban-Suburban program to speak to school districts who had not yet joined the program. We discussed how our friendships and experiences in Urban-Suburban gave us opportunities for cross-cultural learning and understanding. Irondequoit resident parents and parents of bused students were included in the discussion as the Urban-Suburban program evolved. Today, a parent advisory council still exists.

Participating in the Urban-Suburban program fostered in me a strong willingness and ability to have positive relationships with people of diverse ethnicities, nationalities and backgrounds. Having the experience of friendships with children of other races gave me a natural desire to respect and develop an understanding of differences. I recall being very excited when, in high school, we had an exchange program with, predominantly, Hispanic students from a city high school. As a student at the University of Memphis, I naturally, became friends with white students and international students. While I joined organizations that were comprised of, primarily, African American students, once again, I also found myself one of only a few African American students in organizations in which most of students were white. Because of my Urban-Suburban experience, I continue to embrace the value of friendships and experiences with a diverse spectrum of people. I also embrace the opportunity to talk about issues of race, whether it’s with friends, in the workplace, in public forums, etc. As associate director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, I spend each day fulfilling the Institute’s mission of teaching, studying and promoting civil rights and social change.

From my experience, and that of my three sisters, all of whom participated in Urban-Suburban, the busing experiment worked. We received an exceptional education attending West Irondequoit schools from first grade through twelfth grade. We had close friendships with white students who were with us through high school graduation, several of whom I’m still in touch with. The key was the program’s voluntary foundation, the support of the New York State Department of Education and the extra efforts made by the program, the school district and teachers and staff in the schools. They were committed to Urban-Suburban being a positive experience for everyone. The expansion of the program, to include additional suburban districts since 1965, hasn’t been without detractors. Even in the last ten years, some suburban residents have resisted their school districts approving participation in the program. Nevertheless, I am pleased that the Urban-Suburban program is still thriving as a voluntary busing program, committed to educational equity.

Rorie Trammel is the associate director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. Trammel plays an integral role in the activities of the Hooks Institute including administrative and operations duties, fundraising and donor relations, and coordination of the Institute’s National Book Award. Trammel, also, oversees strategic planning and implementation of the Hooks African American Male Initiative (HAAMI). She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Memphis (UofM). She is also a former UofM employee, having worked in the Office of Development for fourteen years. Rorie worked for the YMCA of Memphis & the Mid-South for fourteen and a half years, first as executive director of urban programming and later as vice president for advancement. For many years, Rorie could be heard as a volunteer radio reader for WYPL, the radio station at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. She is a member of the New Memphis Institute and, previously, served on the boards of directors for Partners in Public Education (PIPE), the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Le Bonheur Center for Children and Parents, and the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy.

For This Reason, I Vote

By Kevyanna L. Rawls
President, University fo Memphis Student Government Association

From 2011 to 2015, I spent approximately 7.5 hours of my day of every weekday at Little Rock Central High School. Known for its’ role in the Civil Rights Movement, Little Rock Central High School was the first high school to be integrated in Arkansas and captured national attention as local government officials tried to keep the nine Black teenagers, who would be referred to as the Little Rock Nine, out of the all-white high school. As the Black teenagers attempted to integrate the high school, they were met by protestors who spit on them, threw miscellaneous items at them, and were not allowed to enter the school causing the National Guard to step in. Our professors and administrators made it their duty to ensure that all students were knowledgeable on the situation that occurred at our school, the processes and steps that had to occur for integration to happen, and the barriers that stood between the nine Black students and the then all-White Central High School.

Kevyanna L. Rawls President, University of Memphis Student Government Association.

Although, I assume, this information was taught to us to remind students of how embarrassing of a time this was for the entire city and state, professors also used this as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of civic engagement in the democratic process. We would be naïve to believe that all individuals, despite race, in the south wanted integration to occur; however we can see the ways in which the anger and frustration citizens endured at the time was in part because of the power of the government at a state and national level. One could also argue that the individuals at the time did not hold the same values as they did, and is primarily responsible for the events that occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas during the 1960s.

For this reason, I vote.

As a Black woman, I believe that it is especially important for me to vote because of the intersectionality of my identities. In America we have seen the various waves of feminism that included gaining the right to vote for White women and the Civil Rights Movement that in part advocated for the right of Black men to vote, but of those two movements I fail to completely identify with either. As white women and Black men gained access to the ballot, women like Fannie Lou Hamer still needed to advocate for the Black woman’s vote at the cost of her own physical well-being and sanity. It is with this in mind that I am reminded of why it is important for me to be registered to vote and exercise my rights to do so. If voting was not important, why would individuals spend hundreds of years denying minority groups the right to do so? Why would barriers be set in place to disenfranchise minority populations, if voting had no impact on the society we live in? Although the issues are different, the necessity to vote and the consequences of not voting have remained the same.

By actively deciding not to register to vote,  one makes the decision to allow the rest of society to tell them what is best for them and decide what issues to focus on for the allotted time period. The decision to not participate in democracy is a decision to silence your own voice when everyone else is speaking for what they believe in. As I entered my first year of college, I vividly recall being excited to register to vote. With my birthday being in early September, I did not have the opportunity to participate in the elections the year before, but knew that voting was one of the most exciting things about turning 18. Registering to vote was something you could do when getting a new license after you turned 18, so I did it on the spot. I felt so empowered and remember the excitement that I felt when I was officially considered a registered voter.

#GoVoteGoTigers Pin

The first time I was able to vote was in the 2016 election and I was extremely nervous. At the time I had no car and knew that my parents would not be able to drive to Memphis to take me to vote, so I took a chance and requested an absentee ballot. The joy I had when I received the absentee ballot is indescribable. I simply recall going to my room and googling every candidate, searching for information about every bill on the ballot, and being able to genuinely take my time to learn more about the values of the individuals seeking to gain my vote. I assume this feeling is incomparable to going to an actual polling station to vote, but it reminded me of how I could make a contribution to my community in a positive way.

As the president of the University of Memphis Student Government Association, I believe that my position on campus is evidence of the significance of voting. As an elected representative of the student body, I was elected because I was entrusted with being able to represent students the way they would like to be represented and this is the hope we all have for our local, state, and national representatives. We expect them to have our best interest in mind when making decision. We expect them to be honest and transparent with us. We expect that they honor their commitment to their position and seek to enhance the quality of life for us through their decision. For this reason, I encourage YOU to vote. It is not about whose side you are on or who you have heard the most conversation about, it is about who can represent you and make the impact in your community that you would like to see despite their personal opinions. Allow them to be your voice by showing up at the polls on November 6th.

About the Author

Kevyanna Rawls is a senior English and African American Studies double major with double minors in Spanish and Sociology. Currently, Kevyanna serves the SGA President for the 69th general assembly. As an advocate for equity and justice, Kevyanna uses her platform to advocate for underrepresented populations and address student concerns on the campus of the University of Memphis. Kevyanna’s involvement with advocacy and social justice have motivated her to pursue an education in law and the ways in which laws may enhance the experience of individuals in America while negatively impacting the lives of others. Kevyanna intends to attend law school in Fall 2020 and later become a civil rights’ attorney.

Extraordinary, Ordinary Leadership: A Meditation on the Fayette County, TN Archives and the Duty of Everyday Activism

By Errol Rivers

Beginning in 2015, I have worked as a graduate assistant at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. I have primarily worked as an editor and proofreader on an archival project referred to as the Civil Rights Movement of Fayette County, Tennessee (1959–mid-1970s). This collection of documents, stories, photographs, and correspondences chronicles the challenges African Americans in Fayette County faced while fighting for the right to vote and other basic civil rights. Activist efforts included organizing to access their right to vote in elections, developing strategies to acquire shelter and necessities after white landowners forced African-American sharecroppers out of their homes to live in tents, and advocating for the desegregation of schools in Fayette County, among other things. Together, the various printed and electronic features of this collection capture specific characteristics of grassroots activism in the South during a time of intense racial and socioeconomic strife.

Family living in one of several “tent cities” founded to house those who were evicted after registering to vote. Circa 1960. Photograph: Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Library, University of Memphis.

My work with the Hooks Institute began at a critical juncture in my life. In 2015, social media and the news were rife with examples of police brutality and other injustices against marginalized groups.  I had become overwhelmed with a sense of powerlessness in response to the wide circulation of audio and video footage depicting graphic violations of civil rights—especially that involving deadly interactions that occurred between law enforcement and black women, men, and children. Beyond my personal stakes in the welfare of minority groups, I, along with many of various backgrounds, seemed to be growing both anxious by and weary of hearing about the emotionally charged topic of injustice. Having been raised several decades after the Civil Rights Movement, I expected the distanced experience I had always enjoyed when studying past civil rights history would, unfortunately, feel far more immersive in such a socially turbulent time for minority groups. As I spoke with family and friends about the work I would soon begin, they, too, were concerned about my emersion into history about past abuses African Americans suffered in Fayette County when I needed to look no further than recent news for current instances of oppression. However, as I began my work at the Hooks Institute, this fear of sinking further into hopelessness was replaced by a passionate commitment to the change I might help to create. This change in perspective was thanks to the inspirational story of the Civil Rights Movement of Fayette County.

NYC action in solidarity with Ferguson. Mo, encouraging a boycott of Black Friday Consumerism. 28 November 2014, C/o The All-Night Images

It would be easy to reduce my time learning about the movement in Fayette County to a lesson in dates, Martin Luther King Jr’s impact, and the unjust yet historic nature of the time—this narrative is certainly a familiar focus of many educational materials on the 1960s. However, what I found to be powerful, unique, and transformative about the collection was its emphasis on the lived experiences of those who stood up, against the odds, to demand respect for themselves and their constitutional rights. The collection was also unique because it allowed the viewer, through first-hand accounts of the activists, to experience past events in “real time,” to examine how activists felt as events took place. This collection allowed me to go beyond written facts to the “spirit” of ordinary people, who became extraordinary activists in pursuit of equality.

Particularly moving is the collection’s tangible expansion of what defines a true leader. When I learned about the American Civil Rights Movement as a child, civil rights heroes appeared so powerfully eloquent, strategically well dressed, and justifiably revered. Their colossal images shrunk my belief that I could ever do or change anything like they did. What the collection offered me was the insightful perspective that leaders take many forms: leaders include the faces, voices, and bodies of the poor, rural South.

African American citizens of Fayette County, TN line up at the county courthouse to register to vote. Photograph: Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Library, University of Memphis.

The riveting personal stories and specific details depicted in the collection’s photographs, video clips, and written correspondences offer a unique and boldly honest depiction of Southern activism, as told by various Fayette Countians and Northern allies. Rich, emotionally-complex stories of persistence, sacrifice, and conflicted morality are found in the accounts of those of local leaders, like John McFerren and Harpman Jameson, World War II veterans who provided the early leadership to voter registration efforts; Maggie Mae Horton, an “aggressive” activist who worked to create solidarity among African Americans in her voting district; and Northern civil rights workers who volunteered their time, resources, and like local activists, risked their safety to demand civil rights for African Americans. These and similarly interesting stories demonstrate why the Fayette County movement is so inspirational. In this way, the collection adds to a necessary space in recorded history for black, rural Southerners of the time, whose stories have too often gone untold to the extents that they deserve.

One of the Fayette County, TN’s Tent cities. Photograph: Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Library, University of Memphis.

As the civil rights issues described in my work unavoidably infiltrated all parts of my personal life during the campaigning season of the 2016 presidential election, I, like many Americans, felt compelled to reevaluate my understandings of civic duty, leadership, and the self. This would be necessary as I decided how I might orient myself within such a divisive moment in United States history. For guidance, I looked to the courageous individuals who came before me, and they exemplified one thing about change: silence was—and is—no option when in the face of injustice. Journalist and civil and women’s rights activist Ida B. Wells once said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Author Zora Neale Hurston warned, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Wells and Hurston demanded personal responsibility to fight injustices.

While many might believe they can surrender their voice and political agency to a single more charismatic, visible, or wealthy “leader,” the events that unfolded in Fayette County show that ordinary people of all backgrounds can, and have taken, courageous and strategic action to resist discrimination. Of course, we each have limits to our ability and reach, but activism, monumental and small, is the burden and the privilege that everyday people can carry to help ensure the welfare of others.

African Americans in Fayette County, TN register to vote. Circa 1960. Photograph: Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Library, University of Memphis.

How, though, do we carry this burden and honor the opportunities our rights afford us? In Fayette County, local African American leaders created the Original Fayette County Welfare League to empower African Americans by helping them to register to vote and creating literacy schools, among other things. In our current cultural moment and everyday lives, everyday activism may look like engaging in difficult conversations about privilege, learning about and attending a protest, diversifying the required readings on a syllabus for an upcoming course, or working to challenge our own biases through committed education. However we define our activist efforts, I have come to believe that committing to personal growth and using our platforms and privileges to create positive change is how our roles as citizens, leaders, and everyday people intersect in the achievable ideal.

Evicted sharecroppers at one of Fayette County, TN’s “Tent Cities”. Circa 1960. Photograph: Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Library, University of Memphis.

Throughout history, the promise of change seemed to flow from an (im)perfect storm of social and economic upheaval.  Through these unique moments in time, our greatest progress in furthering civil rights and social justice have taken place. Since I began working with the Hooks Institute, the turbulent social and political landscape of which I was previously afraid has only intensified as we have struggled to engage with one another to discuss issues, such as race relations, gender equality, immigration, gender identity, environmental justice, and many more. Despite this, I—and I hope many in the nation—believe it is imperative to work actively towards a renewed, spirited and tenacious sense of unity to effect meaningful, positive change for each and every one of us. My exploration of the civil rights movement in Fayette County allowed me to situate myself and today’s social and institutional struggles within a legacy of unified and effective resistance to injustice in our nation. This could only occur because, through the collection, it was easy to see, if not myself or a loved one in the faces and stories portrayed, the universal humanity in the textured voices and strong familial ties featured in the collection.

Although I lack answers as to how I, you, or we might do so, the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement of Fayette County make it undoubtedly clear that an ability to persist through adversity exists in each of us. As such, I have come to believe that, through our thoughtful, everyday acts of activism, we work to cultivate a world that, rather than drains, invigorates us to want to persist for the call of social justice, regardless of the circumstances thrust upon us.

The Civil Rights Movement of Fayette County collection is in no small part a creation of a passionate and dedicated collaboration. Several Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change staff members, University of Memphis instructors, staff members of the Preservation and Special Collections Department at the University of Memphis, external scholars, and graduate assistants have devoted a significant amount of time and effort to ensuring the procurement, creation, maintenance, and dissemination of various elements of the project. Additionally, while respectfully crafted and weaved together by Hooks Institute staff and University faculty to present a cohesive narrative, little to none of the collection would exist without the tremendous support of the people of Fayette County who volunteered their time to help tell their stories. This extraordinary example of collaborative writing, community engagement, and committed scholarship stands as a shining example of the Hooks Institute’s mission of “teaching, studying, and promoting civil rights and social change.”

Errol Rivers is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English at the University of Memphis. He has served as a graduate assistant at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute of Social Change from fall 2015 to fall 2017. Rivers is particularly interested in the roles professional and technical writing plays in health-related fields. Other research interests include classical sociological theory, identity studies, implications of pop culture on social politics, and relationships forged between the body and the self.

Making It Across the Bridge: Civil Rights, Social Justice, and the Life of Benjamin L. Hooks in Duty of the Hour

By Daphene R. McFerren

Duty of the Hour, a film on civil rights activist and native Memphian Benjamin L. Hooks, encourages us to ask ourselves, “To what extent are our lives today in the service of advancing a higher good for others?” The documentary chronicles the struggle for civil rights in Memphis and the nation during the 1960s and 1970s through the life of Benjamin Hooks. Hooks’ story demonstrates that civil rights activism is an undertaking not for the weak of heart, but instead a demanding endeavor requiring strong character; an ability to take, and move on from, harsh criticism; strong prayers; and a sense of optimism that universe is on your side.

Benjamin L Hooks and other civil rights activists of the 1960s were under no illusions that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s would fix hundreds of years of discriminatory practices against African Americans. While they were encouraged by gains of the Civil Rights Movement, they nonetheless remained deeply concerned about the impact of entrenched poverty and racism in American society. “The Poor People’s Campaign,” Dr. Martin Luther King’s grand scale initiative to tackle poverty in America, illustrated the pervasiveness of economic disparities even in the 1960s. Today, as well as then, poverty locks a disproportionate number of African Americans and others in a cycle of economic despair, preventing self-determination and full participation in the life of the community and nation.


Benjamin L. Hooks Speaks from a Pulpit.
Benjamin L. Hooks Speaks from a Pulpit.

While clearly not our “mothers’ and fathers’ Civil Rights Movement,” in many respects the #BlackLivesMatter movement picks up where the Civil Rights Movement left off. The issue of policing in minority communities and the shocking deaths of young African American men in the last few years at the hands of the police, or in the case the death of Trayvon Martin, by a self-pointed vigilante, have rocked African American communities to their core. While #BlackLivesMatter’s most prominent issue has been excessive use, or unnecessary use, of deadly force by the police against African Americans, the movement has begun to challenge systemic issues of poverty, unemployment, and discrimination impacting African Americans. Much like the movement’s predecessors, #BlackLivesMatter challenges the strong fibers of racial inequality that run through the fabric of our nation.

As Duty of the Hour unfolds, it’s clear that Hooks, Democrats, and Republicans, worked to build bridges to ensure more inclusive and just communities. Here too is a lesson’s for today’s leaders.  While Duty of the Hour is a historical account of past events, it is also a mirror for self-examination by each of us about our “duty” to create fair and just communities for African Americans, the poor, and others in today’s world. Like the 1960s, the struggles of our time require thoughtful examination, reflection, and action within the spheres of our influence.

Benjamin L. Hooks. Photo, copyright DeSciose.
Benjamin L. Hooks. Photo, copyright DeSciose.

While much work remains to be done, Hooks and civil rights activist of his time made it across the bridge to create a more just, but still imperfect, nation. We too have a bridge to cross. Our nation faces a crisis with respect to disproportionate incarceration rates for African Americans, entrenched poverty of both black and whites, and severe class and wealth differences that negatively impact us all.  These pressing issues clearly show that we have a rough, unsteady, and difficult bridge to cross. Some, including #BlackLivesMatter, activists, and concerned others have begun the walk over the bridge. Making it across this bridge will not be easy. But again, as history makes clear, it never has been.


Hooks Family, ca. 1930. Benjamin Hooks, bottom row, center.
Hooks Family, ca. 1930. Benjamin Hooks, bottom row, center.

The trajectory of Benjamin L. Hooks’ life, and his impact on Memphis and the nation, could not have been fathomed at the time of his birth. Hooks was born in Memphis in 1925, a time when Jim Crow laws openly condoned segregationist and racist practices. Hooks attended LeMoyne College, now LeMoyne-Owen, and completed law school, aided in large part by the benefits he received from GI bill while serving in World War II. During the war, Hooks realized that the Italian prisoners of war whom he guarded enjoyed greater privileges as white prisoners than Hooks held as a soldier serving his country. Like other African American veterans of World War II, Hooks returned to America a changed man with a resolve to fight racial inequality.

In 1965, former Tennessee Governor Frank G. Clement appointed Hooks to serve as a criminal court judge in Memphis, making Hooks the first African American judge in a court of record in Tennessee’s history. While this appointment was life changing for Hooks, it proved to be a brave and courageous move for a white governor who, by the very act of appointing Hooks, unleashed a fury of hate upon himself from whites and members of the voluntary bar association of Memphis.

Benjamin Hooks on the FCC.
Benjamin Hooks on the FCC.

Hooks was appointed by to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by President Richard Nixon in 1972. There Hooks fought to protect First Amendment rights even in cases such speech was racially offensive. While at the FCC Hooks worked to increase minority ownership of broadcast media to ensure a diversity of voices in broadcast media.

In 1977, when Hooks became the director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Hooks held a national stage where he could advance a civil rights agenda that included combatting poverty, creating jobs and business opportunities for African Americans, and ending apartheid in South Africa.  Even after retiring from the NAACP in 1992, Hooks remained a lifetime advocate for racial equality and emphasized the urgent need for African Americans to play a pivotal role in economic life of this country.

Duty of the Hour premieres on WKNO Monday, September 12, 2016 at 7 PM; and again on WKNO-2 Tuesday, September 12, 2016 at 7 PM. To learn more about the film and the Hooks Institute, please visit www.memphis.edu/benhooks or www.memphis.edu/dutyofthehour


About the Author

Daphene McFerrenDaphene R. McFerren is the executive director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. McFerren manages the Hooks Institute’s strategic planning; program creation and implementation; local and national fundraising efforts; and work on behalf of the Hooks Institute staff, faculty, and contractors. McFerren is responsible for creating budgets for Hooks Institute programs and monitoring program expenses to ensure that financial targets are met. She is the primary media contact for the Hooks Institute and has made numerous television and radio appearances to promote its work. McFerren was the executive producer of the film Duty of the Hour, a film about the life of Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks.

The Benjamin Lawson Hooks Papers: An Introduction

By: Will Love

Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, calls for blacks to ban together in their efforts to overcome racial injustices during a speech to the 69th annual convention. July 4, 1978
Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, calls for blacks to ban together in their efforts to overcome racial injustices during a speech to the 69th annual convention. July 4, 1978

Housed in the Preservation and Special Collections Department of the University of Memphis Libraries are the Benjamin Lawson Hooks Papers (MSS 445).  By far one of the most expansive holdings of Special Collections, the Hooks papers span close to 400 boxes, containing correspondence, speeches, printed materials, administrative files, photographs, and audio and video recordings that pertain to the life of Benjamin Hooks, long time lawyer/civil rights activist and executive director of the NAACP from 1977-1992.

As a recently hired staff member of the University of Memphis Libraries, I have begun the process of digitizing major components of the Ben Hooks papers, a project sponsored by the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change.  So far, I have focused on the scanning and recording of the photograph and audio-cassette portions of the collection.  With roughly 1200 photographs and several dozen hours of audio files, the Hooks Institute, the University of Memphis Library, and I aim to make a significant sample of images and audio recordings available online for public access.  As we continue to build the Hooks digitization project website, we will also include a representative sample of scanned manuscripts to supplement the photographs and audio series.  Our aim is to demonstrate the richness of the Hooks collection so that scholars and engaged members of the public visit the Preservation and Special Collections Department to research the Hooks papers more fully.

President Ronald Reagan, Ms. Francis Hooks, and Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks in 1981.
Ben Hooks and Ronald Reagan shaking hands at the White House in 1981. This picture most likely took place weeks before Reagan gave a speech to the NAACP in Denver, CO.

The majority of the collection pertains to Hooks’ time as executive director of the NAACP from 1977-1992, as these years comprise over 90 percent of the collection.  As director, Ben Hooks gave many public speeches both to and on behalf of the NAACP, where he outlined his disagreements with the policies of President Ronald Reagan and Hooks’ concerns with the general socio-economic direction of the country.

In conjunction, Hooks also served as pastor-on-leave of Mt. Moriah Baptist church in Detroit, Michigan where he on occasion preached both to Mt. Moriah and other churches and assemblies around the country.  Hooks felt the call to ministry in his youth and was ordained as a Baptist minister in the 1950s, preaching regularly for the Greater Middle Baptist Church in Memphis before becoming a pastor in Detroit in the 1970s.

Having read through many of Hooks’ speeches and listened to many recorded sermons, one immediate observation stands out: Hooks gives an interesting look into a life of racial equality advocacy before the age of social media but after many initiatives of the 1960s civil rights era had been achieved.

A close up of Ben Hooks at a podium in 1980.
A close up of Ben Hooks at a podium in 1980.

In his sermons, Hooks was fond of quoting Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” as Hooks believed that this quotation described the life of African Americans in the 1980s.  On the one hand, Hooks was clear that African Americans had made substantial progress in the last two decades, thanks to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.  African Americans had cumulatively earned enough wealth that if they consolidated and implemented it in a focused direction, they would carry enough influence to bring even the biggest corporation to its knees.  African Americans were now mayors, police officers, judges, and business owners in numbers unprecedented in American History.

On the other hand, Hooks believed that the African American community was in a greater crisis now than any other time in history.  He often made pointed jokes of African Americans “tithing to the local liquor store” and stark remarks about the level of violence prevalent in many African American neighborhoods, noting that the number of African American men murdered by other other African American men was far greater than the number of African American men lynched in the early twentieth-century South.   The remedy for this problem was not government intervention (though Hooks as NAACP director tirelessly advocated for the prolonging of targeted programs) but rather a revival within the African American community, centered on the church and the family.

Ben Hooks and Senator Edward Kennedy, 1972.
Ben Hooks and Senator Edward Kennedy at the 23rd NAACP membership luncheon.

Hooks, thus, demonstrates the changing nature of rhetoric throughout the history of civil rights.  Hooks, at times, sounds like an affirmative action minded civil rights activist, calling Reagan and other conservatives to task over slashing publicly funded programs designed to create opportunities for the poor.  In Hooks’ view, Reagan’s policies would not engender equal prosperity for all Americans but in fact, stimulate wealth redistribution from the poor to the rich, destroying the progress achieved over the last two decades.  At other times, Hooks sounds like a modern social conservative, noting the central role of the church, the family, and the responsibility of the individual to correct his or her own problems, regardless of prevailing societal ills.

Ben Hooks 1978
Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, tells a Portland news conference Friday that his organization had a very successful convention. He added that the NAACP will continue to fight for racial equality on all fronts. July 7, 1978

Much of Hooks’ mixed messaging can be attributed to varying audiences.  When preaching to a predominantly African American congregation, he sounds quite differently than when speaking to a national audience on behalf of the NAACP.  But, I suspect, much of it also stems from a time period when an individual as prominent as Hooks could easily find a media platform for his initiatives without worrying over the “viral” tendencies of today’s hyper charged social media exchanges.  Hooks could craft political messages and rhetorical strategies designed to make the nightly news and morning newspapers without worry that a misinterpreted statement would spread around the internet in moments.  In this regard, Hooks’ tenure with the NAACP represents a transitional moment in the history of the civil rights movement, and while it shares many differences with our current struggles, it perhaps has more in common with our own struggles than did the marches and protests of the 1960s.


All photographs pictured are the property of Special Collections, 
the University of Memphis Libraries.