Benjamin Hooks

The Politics of Civil Rights

VTR Date: July 8, 1983

Guest: Hooks, Benjamin


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Benjamin Hooks
Title: “The Politics of Civil Rights”
VTR: 7/8/83

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. We just recorded in this studio a FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK program with Benjamin Hooks, the Executive Director of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And I’ve asked Mr. Hooks to stay in place a bit so that here on THE OPEN MIND we might move on from the immediate considerations of a weekly news show to the longer-range concerns of this more leisurely paced examination of men and ideas.

Mr. Hooks, welcome to THE OPEN MIND.

HOOKS: Thank you very much.

HEFFNER: Thank you for staying here. And let me begin by asking you some of those longer-range questions that perhaps it was impossible to ask in the format of the news show. I was going to refer to the fact that on THE EDITOR’S DESK Clarence Pendleton, Chairman of President Reagan’s Commission on Civil Rights, had appeared and made an interesting statement. He said, “A lot of us assumed in 1963 when we marched with Dr. King that there would probably be one protected class in America, and that would be Blacks. Since that time, the population of the protected classes has grown to about 17. Approximately 75 percent of Americans now are covered by Affirmative Action laws and regulations, so it winds up being a zero-sum game”. Do you think that has damaged the Civil Rights Movement in terms of Blacks?

HOOKS: I really don’t know what Pendleton is talking about. When the equal opportunities have been passed…Howard Smith – we used to call him “Judge” Smith – he was a recalcitrant congressman from the South – put into the law women, you know, as well as Blacks and other protected classes, thinking that it would defeat the law. And that’s where he gets that 75 percent figure from because obviously at least half of Americans are women. But the fact of the matter is history will be able to record that we have discriminated against women. When I was sitting as a criminal court judge, a Black judge, the first in the South, in Memphis, Tennessee…Here was a Black man who had been discriminated against all his life, and yet I fell in briefly here with the White male lawyer idea that all women lawyers were somehow inferior and they didn’t know how to present their cases. I found myself, you know, being caught up in that kind of thing. Because our whole history had men dominating women, you know, in this country. So that when we think in terms of people who need a protection of the law, it is a lot of people, there are rather a lot of people, and included in that class are women. Now, to the extent that there has been a charge made that women are being advanced faster than Blacks, that is no more than an attempt to divide the folk or the allies.

HEFFNER: But suppose one concedes that a statement is an attempt to divide would-be allies, is it true nevertheless?

HOOKS: I’m not sure of what he said being in that game. No, I don’t agree with that. When I remember finishing law school in 1949, there was not a single Black judge in the City of Memphis. Today there are nine, including a federal judge. There were no Black…There were no women judges. Today there are about seven. So that both women and men, Black people you know gained positions. Included though, in that band of Black judges are some Black women. I don’t understand. I mean, we have made remarkable progress and I wouldn’t want to deny the fact that because of the new opportunities opening up my grandboys would have more to look forward to than I did. When I practiced law had I told somebody in 1949 that I wanted to be a judge or that I would have the opportunity on three separate occasions to turn down an appointment to the federal judgeship, you know, they would have thought that I had lost my mind. So that women and Blacks and other protected minorities have advanced. Now, if one says that White males are being discriminated against, you would have to conclude that they were the only ones who should be judges, as they were in 1949. It is true if you had no Black judges in Memphis then those nine Blacks, spots filled by Blacks would be filled by White males. But I don’t think that is reverse discrimination or that there has been no net gain. The fact that we have 5,000 Black elected officials is a net gain. The fact that we do have a number of Blacks in positions they have never held before is a net gain. And the fact that women have been included in the mix is a net gain for America.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting to me that you take that approach to the question of civil rights and the question of Blacks and the place of Blacks in our country. Not so terribly long ago Kenneth Clark was at this table. And I think that Dr. Clark’s approach was, he wasn’t unwilling to admit great progress, but he was somewhat despairing, somewhat, I think, less optimistic, less positive about the position of Blacks today. How do you reconcile those?

HOOKS: Well, you see, I don’t know Dr. Clark’s background, but I came from nowhere to somewhere. I was born in Memphis in a completely segregated society. I went to an all-Black grammar school, high school. I served in the 92nd Infantry Division which was all Black except for the officers who were all White, above the rank of Captain. I’ve seen the progress and nobody’s going to make me deny that progress. I see the problems now. I see the difficulties now. I understand the difference now is we no longer have a Brown vs. Board of Education case which in one opinion can change the whole law. We now must implement it one piece by one piece. Akron, Ohio; Canton, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee…I understand we have equal opportunity employment laws. But when we come to the various companies we have to deal with it one by one and job by job. Because I’m in the thick of the fight ever day. There are days when I do become discouraged, but every now and then you have to stand back, and not only see a forest, but you have to see trees. I would negate the history of the Black accomplishment in America if I tried to pretend there was no progress.

HEFFNER: You know, there was a quote from Vernon Jordan not so long ago, “Black people are out of style”. It’s an interesting quotation. What do you think about it?

HOOKS: Well, I think that what Vernon was referring to is that there was a brief period – and America had those brief periods – one with a certain kind of clarity, like a light coming on in the darkness, we see Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation address; Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which was a novel concept. And when we think about participatory democracy, back in 1774-75, when all over this world we believe in the divine right of kings and peasants were tied to the land and serfs – almost as bad as slavery. When you see this light shining through that gloom, “We hold these truths to be self-evident”, when you read the Emancipation Proclamation, when you read the Amendment – I forget which one it was – adopted in 1920 giving women the right to vote, when you read the language of Lyndon Johnson as he talked about, “We shall overcome”, and equality results, every now and then America has a clear vision. And there was a period, a very brief period, when Blacks were on the major agenda of America during the 60s; Led by men such as Dr. King and Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young and Malcolm X and others, for a brief period of time White America saw its errors. And it’s peculiar because King had a very peculiar philosophy. And White people have never understood that he paid them the greatest compliment that could ever be paid. He maintained – and I was a member of his board then and worked very closely with him – that in the Judeo-Christian philosophy of America there was a conscience that could be reached, but the only way to reach that conscience was to create tension. He would take a rubber band and stretch it. So with marches and demonstrations he was trying to reach the conscience of America.

The film Gandhi is the best example. Mahatma Gandhi did a lot of things through, you know, passive resistance and through starvation diets. But one would have to be a fool to have believed that that kind of tactic would have worked on Hitler; you know, because with Hitler you could go on a starvation died and die and it wouldn’t have bothered him. The compliment that King paid the white American was that they did, indeed, have a conscience; you know, hidden, devious, oblivious, they walked on the Black folk and enslaved them and sold them. But King had this profound belief that you could stretch that rubber band enough and create enough tension that White America would respond and indeed they did. And the tragedy of King’s life was he had to die before people understood it. I put together a study group in Memphis of the editors of the papers and general managers of the television stations and presidents of the big universities and national banks, and one of the things that I asked them to do when we came together after Dr. King was killed in Memphis is would they take the time to read a few books. And the first book I gave them was a book by W.B. DuBois and Booker Washington and Roseman Johnson together, and they read that book. Then I asked them to read “Why We Can’t Wait” and “Strive to Freedom” by King. And these White men, captains of industry, educators, sat at that table one morning and cried because they said they had never understood what King was about until he was dead. They’d never heard him speak. You know, they heard the newspapers say, “Here domes this agitator”. So that King had this peculiar philosophy. And the NAACP, by the way, had the same philosophy in a different mood. We believed that we could go to court. And remember that the Supreme Court under Warren that voted 9-0 in Brown vs. the Board of Education in our favor was an all-White Supreme Court, appointed by many different presidents. Remember, also, that Thurgood Marshall won more cases before the Supreme Court than any lawyer in the history of this nation.

So that we also had this belief, this deeply engrained belief, that because of the Constitution, because of the nature of the Revolution, even though Black folk were excluded, you know, in practice, we always believed we were included in principal. But we had to do what it took, whether it was marches, demonstrations, boycotts, or legal action, to force America to come to grips with itself. We have succeeded up to a point, but that does not mean to say – and I perhaps agree with Dr. Clark if he is saying that we still have a long way to go, because we are far from equality.

HEFFNER: But you know, on THE OPEN MIND over the years, we’ve been here for 27 years and I’ve sat here talking to Martin Luther King, to Malcolm X, to Roy Wilkins, to Kenneth Clark, to Thurgood Marshall. And I wonder if today your feel there are the likes of those men. You talked about a light shining. Where does that light come from today?

HOOKS: I think that history sometimes gives people more recognition after their death, after their, you know, legendary days, than it does during those days. Thurgood Marshall is a good example. Certainly he won more cases, you know, than anybody else. But he was not universally recognized as a great lawyer because people have a prejudice. I mean many White people never looked at him. Roy Wilkins will perhaps be more recognized in years to come by the general population. I don’t mean perceptive people like you who sit, you know, where news is being made and generated. I don’t mean that kind of recognition. But among masses of people, Martin King was more appreciated in death than in life. But that’s true also of White people. A man wrote me a letter during my recent crisis in which he said that “We have a peculiar philosophy in America: one generation murders its leaders, and the next generation erects monuments”. And I think that’s true. Abraham Lincoln was one of the most vilified of all the American presidents, you know, during his lifetime. It’s unbelievable – and I am sort of a student of Lincoln – what people said about him: a fool, a monkey, a clown, a gorilla. You know, everything you wanted to think of. But when he got killed, even in the South, where they despised him, they came to appreciate his greatness and his (???).

So that when you ask other people on the scene today…I have wondered about that. I don’t see a Franklin Roosevelt. I wonder what’s happened to White people. Where are the great people? Where is the Thomas Jefferson of today? What has happened to the White male? Why can’t we produce the lies of a George Washington, Abraham Lincoln? What has happened to White public? What has happened to their minds? I almost despair when I look at White people of today and remember the great White folk of yesterday. I wonder, where are they? Where is the Edward R. Murrow? Where is the man who is willing to risk his whole career during the McCarthy era? Where are the lawyers that stood up there? Where is the George C. Marshall, that great military genius? You know, where is the Harry Truman who stood up, you know, to the Russians and the Iron Curtain thing? Where are the Winston Churchills in the world? I wonder if we’re producing a generation of mediocre people. But then I stop and think and say, well maybe 20 years from now they’ll look back and find somebody in this present crowd who has achieved greatness. But I feel somewhat like you. I’ve begun to wonder, have White folk in the Western world forfeited their leadership? Have they lost all their great minds? I wonder about that.

HEFFNER: And your conclusion?

HOOKS: Well, my conclusion is that in a way, Dick, I’m a victim of that same type of historical view or perspective that we don’t recognize the Caesars among us. I don’t recognize the modern kings and Frederick Douglasses. We don’t recognize a Walt Whitman until time has passed. I’m not even sure that Shakespeare was as great in his lifetime as he is now.

HEFFNER: It’s funny, I was mentioning to you before that when Martin Luther King sat at this table with Judge T. Waites Waring and my task was to introduce him to a New York audience, I must grant, who had no sense of who he might be…But such is fame. Let me move my question to something that relates to that. My friends at the Wall Street Journal editorialized not so long ago when the president nominated three people to the United States Civil Rights Commission and the great outcry, and your group and other groups protested the naming of these three people. They were the three people who had been involved during the Civil Rights Movement in the past, but on a different level, with a different focal point perhaps. And the Journal went on to say about the people who had protested the nomination by the president, he said, “These leaders, they have now achieved their major goals (Black leaders, essentially) and a case for some of their new demands, say allotting minorities a specific share of federal procurement contracts, is much weaker than those earlier insistences on anti-discrimination laws”. Do you think that per force the Civil Rights Movement is weakened in terms of gaining White support by the fact that what you have said has been accomplished, has been accomplished?

HOOKS: But you know, let me just say this: The Wall Street Journal ought to be absolutely ashamed of itself. You know, we forget history so quickly. Do you remember after the Revolutionary War the ties were broken with England, that you could have a pair of shoes made in England shipped across 3,000 miles of ocean, bought in New York much cheaper and much better than shoes made here in America. So we erected a tariff wall in order to protect American industry so it could grow. And shoes made in America would break your feet up, were so high priced, because that was the feeling among the Founding Fathers and Mothers of this country, that without that high tariff wall we would never develop our industry. Now, we did that. They are talking now about a domestic content law. Because we’re afraid of imports, you know, and various kinds of things. And yet when it comes to Black people seeking their place in the sun, all of a sudden we forget all about our history and the great tariff walls we erected until we could do that. It’s the same principle. When we asked the federal government to set aside a certain amount of its, you know, procurement contracts for Black businesspeople, it is not something that is to last forever, but like the tariff, a wall behind which you can get started and out of which you can compete.

The day came when in America we could make shoes as quickly, as efficiently, and as well as they could in England and we no longer needed a tariff wall. But let me just say one other thing. Eighty percent of the defense contracts I this country are noncompetitive. I testified not long ago before a congressional committee and they asked how long would Black people want this protection? I said, “Well, about as long as McDonnell Douglass and Lockheed and Boeing”. They’ve been getting noncompetitive defense contracts, costless contracts since 1941. Forty-two years. But because they’re White and because they’re the majority of people, nobody ever questions them. They build some kind of big pipe in one part of California and one in New York, and when it came together it wouldn’t fit. You’ve got helicopters and won’t run and rifles that won’t shoot. You know, we’ve got all kinds of mistakes and malfunctions. And there’s cost overruns. I spent five years in Washington and I saw the wining and the dining that’s charged to taxpayers. Nobody raises those questions. But when Black people come up and ask for little bitty pieces of pie to give us the chance to get started, not forever, not in perpetuity as they do with some of these big defense contractors, but a small piece of the pie, a little wall of protection so we can become a part of the American mainstream…no nation in the Western world, according to Toynbee, the great English historian who recently died, had ever succumbed to outside military force, but all of them have succumbed to weaknesses from within. You cannot build a great nation when ten percent of its people are permanently economically underclassed. And that is a problem today. We have achieved these things I talk about, some economic, I mean some political power; we’ve eliminated the separate restrooms. But when it comes to the economy, ten percent of Americans are unemployed, but in the Black community it’s 20 percent. And that’s what we must work on.

HEFFNER: But that brings me, then, to a question that is of enormous importance. There are those who say that, you know, the crucial question that we have to deal with here is class rather than race. Do you feel that that’s true, economic divisions rather than color divisions?

HOOKS: This question comes up all of the time, and I cannot really get it into the proper context because, you know, when you really get down to it, in gross numbers there are more poor White people in this nation than there are poor Black people. And the Census Bureau says that 30 percent of the Blacks live at or below the level of poverty. That’s nine million. While only ten percent of the white population lives at that level, but that’s 18 million. So there are twice as many poor White people as poor Black people. You talk about structural unemployment. We talk about all kinds of big economic terms. But the fact of the matter is that I don’t see it as a class struggle. Some Black people maintain that the Black people are not as well off now as they were before the so-called Civil Rights Revolution. And I absolutely deplore that statement. How can anybody say, I lived, a Black person lived in the South and could not drink from a water fountain, couldn’t buy a hamburger at the front door, is worse off now. I mean, there are matters of spirit as well as matters of finance. We have settled one part; we’ve got to go to the other part now.

HEFFNER: But aren’t there those who say that within the Black community itself there is a division between class, poorer people and wealthier people and middle-class people, that in a sense undermines the strength of the whole Civil Rights movement?

HOOKS: Well, I don’t think, as I said, I think it’s the falsehood. It’s an absolute lie. And it’s for a very peculiar reason. Anybody who has read Alex Haley’s books, book, will recognize it. That Black people have such close family relationships that a Black leader now will probably have a brother or a sister, nephew or niece, who is on the welfare rolls, you know. So we have not reached the place, I suspect, I don’t want to call any names in the Rockefeller clan or the Ford family, the Mellon family that unless they gave their money away, you know, all of them are pretty well off. Depend upon what you mean by “well off”. Whether a millionaire who only has one million is as well off as a billionaire.

HEFFNER: I’d say so.

HOOKS: In the Black community, we never get very far away, you know, from our poor relations, our family, the people that we love and circle around. So that why is it that if the class distinction is there, why is it that Mr. Reagan’s program which is tilted, as far as I’m concerned, toward the rich, has only attracted in the public opinion polls about five percent of the Black population? Because there is really a class distinction. About 20 percent of the Black people are unemployed today, but they’re 80 percent employed. Thirty percent of the Black Americans live at the level of poverty; 70 percent don’t. But you don’t find, you’ll find that in most communities in which, you go, the Black population and political realities are almost monolithic. They vote for the most liberal candidate or the candidate who promises to do the most for the people. And I think that this whole business of class distinction has been overrated. I do think, however, that the day will come in America in this kind of capitalist society that Mr. Reagan is creating where the rich are getting richer…You know, he really says this: “If you’re rich, the only way to make you work harder is to make sure you take home more”. So therefore they’re going to reduce your taxes so you can take more home. But if you’re poor, the only way to make you work harder is to tax your unemployment benefits so you’d have a stimulus to work. Now, any administration that thinks like that will eventually create class distinctions in this country. And however, I don’t think that philosophy will prevail very long. Certainly there have always been class distinctions in the world, since I’ve been reading about history, and there have been in America. In the Depression there were people giving hundred-thousand-dollar parties while people were literally starving outside the mansion doors. But in terms of the Black community, I think there’s a closer relationship or cohesion based on the extended family that Alex Haley talked about in that great book that still exists very strongly in the Black community.

HEFFNER: Mr. Hooks, one of the areas of dispute, in the whole question of liberalism, the question of the Civil Rights Movement, has been the sense that there is a division now between Blacks and their major supporters back in the old days, the Jewish community. And this comes essentially at the level of quotas. Now what’s your feeling about this matter of division?

HOOKS: Well, there’s no question about the fact that I happened to chair the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which is about 30 years old, founded by Roy Wilkins and the late Philip Randolph and Arnold Aaronson who is Jewish and who still lives, by the way. And there was a very close-knit relationship. But when it came to Affirmative Action and the use of the word “quotas”, and I’ve tried to explain a hundred times that a quota, by definition in terms of race relations, was a ceiling above which one could not rise. At NAACP we talk about goals and timetables. When I was at the FCC I was the equal opportunity employment commissioner. If a television station employed 300 people and they were all White and all male – I’m just making a hypothetical – and I would say to them, “You’ve got to employ some Blacks and some women”, they could have said to me from now to the year 2000, “We cannot find anybody”, and as long as they could say that then they would always have a White male staff. So what we did was adopt reasonable goals and timetables. We said to them, “All right, you’ve got this all White male, you know, workforce” – that never happened; I’m just making a hypothetical – “So that by February 1st, 1974, one year from today, we expect you to have X number of Black and X number of women employed, and they must be spread among them”. That became a remedial situation. It is the same thing that happens when they tell you that you’re not to exceed 55 miles an hour, you know, out on the highway. You have to have a penalty for the violation of a law or else it is no law.

HEFFNER: But Mr. Hooks, you’re a brilliant communicator. Why haven’t you been able to communicate that very understandable position to the Jewish community in a way that would lead them to understand that you weren’t putting in ceilings; you’re putting in floors?

HOOKS: Well, the problem has been two-fold. When I first came to New York City we used to engage in dialogue rather regularly with the established Jewish leadership and the major Jewish organizations. And I have made a standing promise to them which has not, they have not been able to deal with yet. If you can tell me any other way then goals and timetables that Black folk can break into the mainstream, then give me that remedy and if it works we’ll accept it. Until another remedy works we are forced to work with a remedy that will work. We said that in public buildings you must keep the temperature at 68. Mr. Carter as president proclaimed that. Now, patriotic people might do it, but the real reason is there’s some penalty, you know, in terms of escalator clauses if you exceed the usage and so forth. If car companies now are going to penalized because they’re starting to build bigger cars and federal law says your average, you know, mile per gallon must be so much…And up to this point, nobody, White or Black, Jew or Gentile, Clarence Pendleton or Clarence Thomas or anybody else that had been named, Black or White, has been able to come up with any remedy, you know, that’s better than goals and timetables. And I will stick with this. Why, I can understand the historical version of the Jewish community to the word “quota”. I understand that very well. It was used to deny them their legitimate place in the sun. We’ve also gotten into all these other kinds of non-job-related tests. There’s no correlation beyond the first year of college between doing exceptionally well on Scholastic Aptitude Tests and being a good student. There’s no guarantee that the doctor who finished first in his or her class will be the best doctor. At West Point, I think MacArthur was the only general we ever had who finished first in his class, and there were many of us who felt…Well, I don’t want to go into it.

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

HOOKS: If Eisenhower had been promoted on the basis of his scholarship at West Point he would have died a lieutenant colonel. So that, you know, all of these tests we have devised have not dealt with the reality. So what I’m saying is we will attempt to continue to communicate to the Jewish community our concern in this matter.

HEFFNER: Mr. Hooks, thank you so much for joining me today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.