The Federal Bureau of Investigation had two major roles in the life of the late Benjamin Hooks, the lifelong civil rights activist and NAACP director who died in 2010.
The FBI investigated multiple threats against the life of Hooks, who directed the country’s oldest civil rights organization from 1977 to 1992. They also had a confidential informant photograph Hooks (and other civil rights activists) in the wake of the shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and later did an extensive background check on Hooks — as a White House nominee — flagging his alleged ties to communists and noted his involvement in fried chicken restaurants which went bankrupt.
Hooks was one of the individuals present at a meeting following the assassination of King, and was one of those photographed by famed civil rights photographer Ernest Withers on the night MLK was assassinated.
But the Hooks’ FBI file doesn’t appear to give any indications that he was a specific target of Withers. The FBI file also doesn’t indicate that Hooks was extensively investigated like King and other civil rights leaders were at the time.
The FBI did compile plenty of information on Hooks a few years after King’s death, when Hooks was appointed by President Richard Nixon in 1972 as one of the commissioners on the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). At that point, the FBI launched an extensive background check into Hooks, as they typically do with White House nominees.
The FBI noted he “received a traffic citation in 1969 and in 1968 was in attendance at a meeting of the Nation of Islam” and that, due to being a member of King’s National Executive Board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “was in contact on a number of occasions with a secret member of the Communist Party.”
During the background check, peers vouched that Hooks was “a gentleman, a man of great integrity who had the demeanor and temperament to be a good judge,” the FBI file says.
Hooks was also a business man, according to his FBI file. In 1969, he became president of a fried chicken fast-food franchise — Mahalia Jackson Chicken System — which he wanted to be owned and staffed by African-Americans.
As he told the Commercial Appeal in 1969, “We hope to have 50 to 75 establishments by the end of the year; 150 by the end of ‘70 and then on until there are 500 or so throughout the country. The fried-chicken businesses will be located mostly in Negro communities, some in ghettos. We will have Negro owners, Negro operators and Negro customers. We want the Negro to learn to function as a businessman and improve himself.” But after two years, the venture went bankrupt.
Much of the rest of Hooks’ file deals with the threats against Hooks investigated by the FBI in the late 1980s. Although the civil rights era was over by that point, it did not spell the end of racist hate mail targeting the NAACP.
In one Sept. 15, 1987 letter to Hooks, typical of the type of letter Hooks’ FBI file reveals, the letter writer says that “the white majority will stop at nothing to force you from ruining our country telling our Govt. how it should be run, running p to the Hill = long with Crazy man [redacted] forcing it to become a Black Nigger run Govt.”
“Illigitemate [sic] Nigger will never run or walk up those steps to the White House, as a president,” the author of the letter writes.
“We will have your car wire bombed blowing you to bits,” the letter continued. “We will fight to the hell against you. Get lost you nigger (REDACTED) we will fight you tooth and naill. Go back to Brooklyn, we want more teenagers bashing and beating niggers, there is a back lash all over the country, the younger generation just won’t let you niggers push Civil Rts. down their throats.”
In the summer of 1989, there were two separate attacks on NAACP offices, prompting Hooks to contact the FBI. On July 19, just before midnight, three shots were fired into the national headquarters of the NAACP in Baltimore. According to security officers at the scene, the shots came from a wooded area across from the building and broke the office windows. No-one was injured and police recovered one spent bullet from the scene.
Then, on August 21, a tear-gas bomb was delivered by mail to the NAACP’s regional office in Atlanta. The bomb ignited when the package was opened and the building was evacuated. Eight people went to the hospital with eye irritation and breathing problems. The FBI file included a photo of Hooks with Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), displayed to the right.
The FBI investigated and found no connection between the two incidents, and the attempted intimidation continued.
In September, Hooks received two letters, postmarked from Charlottesville, Virginia, from “The White for Their Rights Protestors.” The letters — laced with racial slurs and violent threats — were accompanied by news clippings about affirmative action and welfare.
One clipping, a New York Post article entitled “NAACP’s program for self-defeat,” was about affirmative action laws. Another clipping was an anti-civil rights letter to the editor from a male in Charlottesville: “Quotas and affirmative action are not civil rights.” Another was an article about spaying so-called “welfare moms”—an idea floated by a mayor in West Virginia, Donald Master. An accompanying letter to the editor suggested sterilizing women who had babies out of wedlock.
On September 24, Hooks again called the FBI to report the letters. The FBI discovered during the investigation that similar letters were also mailed to the head of Afro-American studies at the University of Virginia.
Another letter complained about Hooks being invited to the University of Virginia (UVA).
“We don’t see anything in the Law that says our white University here should be filled with half Black Professors,” one person affiliated with the University of Virginia wrote to a Jesuit priest in 1987. “We are angered that Black Bitch [redacted] uses our Universities Steps to push her demands to make this a Black university, employing a quota of Professors, quota nigger Employees, etc. and bringing a so called Nigger Minister (REDACTED) to our UVA Steps angering the White Community.”
Later in life, Hooks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in November 2007.