By Austin Fenner
Special to DNAinfo
MIDTOWN — Civil rights leader Benjamin Hooks was remembered as a champion for the cause Thursday night at Rev. Al Sharptonʼs National Action Network annual award dinner honoring Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy.
Hooks, who led and kept alive the NAACP during the turbulent 1980ʼs, died Thursday morning at his home in Memphis after a long illness. He was 85.
“He was a pioneer for justice,” said Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of the guests at the 12th annual Keepers of the Dream Awards. “Ben Hooks was a minister, a lawyer, a judge … He was a Renaissance man.”
After serving in World War II, Hooks used the G.I. Bill to fund his education to become a lawyer. During his trailblazing career he became the first black judge to sit on the bench in the South after Reconstruction. As a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, Hooks used his position to help minorities gain access to broadcast licenses.
Hooks used his bully pulpit as head of the NAACP to advocate for a more diverse workplace in Americaʼs corporate boardrooms and in front ofﬁces of Major League Baseball.
Princeton professor Dr. Cornell West said his knees buckled when a reporter broke the news to him about Hooks’ passing.
“I loved that brother,” West said. “I loved him because he loved us.”
Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who attended Sharpton's gala along with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, added their praise in Hooks’ memory.
“Benjamin L. Hooks was a leader in the civil rights movement who spent his life ﬁghting for justice and equality,” Bloomberg said. “Benjamin Hooksʼs work as [NAACP] president built it into the civil rights and social justice powerhouse that we celebrated last July during its 100th Anniversary Convention here in the city. His death is a tremendous loss to this country, but his contributions will live on in the generations to come.”
The eveningʼs celebration featured stars including Bill Cosby, Mariah Carey and Wyclef Jean. It was highlighted by a performance by Israeli violinist Miri Ben-Ari, who performed “Symphony of Brotherhood,” and a funk-ﬁlled ﬁnale by The Roots.
Sharpton praised Hooks' lifelong work and dedication and said he made America a better place for all.
“He was a great man,” said Sharpton. “He meant a lot to me. I respect him and I loved him. We will miss him.”