by Brittany Fitzpatrick
Real Times News Service
“It sounds like we’re having church here this morning,” said Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, pastor of Monumental Baptist Church, as he welcomed the approximately 1,000 attendants to the service “Celebrating the Life and Legacy” of Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks.
There were luminaries aplenty among those who attended the Wednesday (April 21) farewell at the Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ. Among those present were:
Dick Gregory; Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Interim Mayor of Shelby County Joe Ford; University of Memphis President Shirley Raines; NAACP President Benjamin Jealous; National Urban League President Marc H. Morial; NAACP Board Chairman Roslyn M. Brock; Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis; Rep. John Lewis (D-GA); Michael Strautmanis, Chief of Staff to the Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Engagement; NAACP President Emeritus, Hazel N. Dukes; and Mayor A.C. Wharton Jr.
As citizens, dignitaries, family and friends gathered to honor Dr. Hooks, many noted they were not there to mourn his loss but rather to celebrate his legacy.
“This gives us a chance to step back and think about what he meant and how we can then take those lessons and make a difference in our own lives and the lives of others around us,” said Stephanie Jones, executive director of the National Urban League Policy Institute and editor-in-chief of the State of Black America.
“We’ve lost two giants in the last couple of weeks, Dr. Hooks and then Dr. (Dorothy I.) Height (longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women.) Hopefully, this will refocus people on who they are and why they matter and how (people) can emulate the work they did to make a difference in the world,” said Jones.
At the beginning of the service, applause rose from the crowd as Superintendent Milton R. Hawkins, the host pastor, proclaimed, “Let’s bless the Lord for the legacy and the life of the man who walked tall among us, Dr. Benjamin Hooks.”
After the processional, the voices of the Greater Middle Baptist Church Choir filled the sanctuary, stimulating praise punctuated by shouts of “Amen!” Next came a video of Dr. Hooks’ accomplishments, including footage of his speech from the NAACP’s Centennial Celebration.
“Dynamite can’t throw us out, fire hoses can’t wash us out, dogs can’t bite us out,” boomed a fiery Dr. Hooks on the video.
Before the service, Hazel N. Dukes, president emeritus of the NAACP, shared memories of her longtime friend.
“Dr. Hooks could walk in a room with 50 people or 500…and when he left all of them wanted to follow him…people would hear him and they would be on their feet cheering, and just motivated to go out and take on the racism and the injustice that still exists,” said Dukes.
Sen. Alexander said Dr. Hooks was a great storyteller who “could turn a phrase inside out and turn the audience inside out while he was turning the phrase inside out.”
Toward the middle of the singing, preaching and shouting-filled celebration, soloist Deborah M. Thomas touched a collective nerve as she began to sing, “One of these evenings I’m going home to get my crown…I’m going to live in glory times after while.”
People began to stand and hands began to clap as arms began to raise amid shouts of “Alright!” and “Yes!” and “Amen!” By the end of the song, Thomas was no longer singing, she was testifying and when she hit her final note, back bent, eyes squeezed tight and head tilted back, the roar from the audience was raw and real.
“Sounds like we’re still having church” said Rev. Kyles.
Throughout the nearly 3 1/2 hour service, many elected officials, clergy members and others delivered expressions of respect for Dr. Hooks.
NAACP President/CEO Benjamin Jealous said Dr. Hooks, his predecessor, “was like Superman to me.”
“There’s no trying to fill Ben Hooks’ shoes,” said Jealous. “We’ll just set them aside, cast them in bronze and understand that another giant that big is (n)ever going to be here again.”
Mayor Wharton saw elements of other giants in Dr. Hooks. “He had courage like (Dr.) Martin (Luther King Jr.), the scholarship of W.E.B. (DuBois). He could influence lawmakers like Julian Bond, he could bring down the house like (Rev. Joseph) Lowery, he could lead a movement like (Rev.) Jesse (Jackson), lead from the bench with the grace of Thurgood (Marshall) and inspire an organization like Dorothy Height.”
Addressing Dr. Hooks’ widow, Frances Hooks, Wharton said, “Mrs. Hooks, we know that you lost your husband, but you know that we lost our hero.”
Michael Strautmanis brought a letter from President Obama.
“Michelle and I were so saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks,” the letter read. “As a Civil Rights leader and a pastor, Dr. Hooks holds an extraordinary place in our history…He will be remembered for his dedication to our nation’s founding principles and for his faith and he will be sorely missed by all those who knew and loved him….May your cherished memories of him continue to bring you great joy and pride.”
Dukes recounted her last conversation with Dr. Hooks.
“Two weeks ago, he called me at 8 o’clock at night and said, ‘Hazel, old ship is tossin’ now, driven by an angry sea, but let me tell you Hazel, I want you to hold on because soon and very soon we’re going to see the King.’”
Offering words of comfort to his family, Dr. Hooks’ nephew, Michael Hooks Sr., said: “Ben didn’t leave us, he just went ahead of you….I submit to you that his life’s work is done….God bless you all, and be happy. Because it’s a glorious day.”
Roslyn M. Brock, the new chairman of the NAACP National Board of Directors, said Dr. Hooks’ beloved NAACP would keep on fighting.
“Thank you, Dr. Hooks,” she said. “We’ll see you after while.”
(Brittany Fitzpatrick reports for the Tri-State Defender of Memphis, Tenn.)