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Dorothy Height and Benjamin Hooks: A Legacy of Commitment

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If you have followed my stories of growing up as a sharecropper’s son, I want to introduce you to another entrepreneurial side I remember of my father. He had a side profession of “Logging” (cutting wood for the paper industry) in the south. He would take me into the woods with him sometimes and of course this was to teach me the logging business. As you enter the woody area the trees are small and as you travel deeper into the woods for cutting you see medium size to very large timber. Occasionally I would see trees leaning because of hard wind and soft ground and some blown completely down to the ground.

I remember playing on a large fallen tree one time and asked my father what happened to this tree that made it fall. He took the gas powered chain saw he had and cut into the tree and explained the lifetime of the tree by the ring circles of the tree. This tree was here for about 70 years before it fell. It had seen some good years because the rings are steady and even in the bad years when it lacked getting enough water and sunlight to let it grow, it continued to grow and provide protection to others growing under it and I’m sure it provided room for birds and animals to live in and raise their families. Now it is gone to provide space for other trees to do the same.

I thought of that time when I heard of the passing on Benjamin Hooks and Dorothy Height. When I entered the civil rights movement in the sixties Dorothy Height and Benjamin Hooks were already larger than life trees in Black History. They had already encountered many racial epithets while drinking from colored only fountains in Richmond, Virginia, the birthplace of Height and Memphis, Tennessee the place of Hooks’ birth.

Like those trees both had good years and many lean years of shattered hopes and dreams. For example, Dorothy was accepted into Barnard College in 1929 but was denied entrance because of the schools unwritten policy of admitting only two Blacks at a time.

That did not stop Dorothy. She enrolled at New York University where she earned both a Bachelor and Master Degree.

That knowledge was used to fertilize the tree and the tree continued to grow removing racial discrimination laws, practices and stereotypical images about people of color and closed the gender gap for women. I was watching an episode on the television show several months ago about black and white ladies from the north going down south during the sixties selling Tupperware while conducting civil right meetings. I wonder where that idea came from? Well, none other than Dorothy Height and her “Wednesday in Mississippi” organization that brought White and Black women together for racial understanding.

She grew up to advise several presidents from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Barack Obama. She accomplished so many things that made life easier for people thoughout the world. I remember listening in on conversations, here in San Bernardino, as she described to Lois Carson, Cheryl Brown, Wilmer Amina Carter and others, through the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) Pig Bank Program she envisioned for Swaziland, South Africa. Dorothy Height is Civil Rights Royalty and will be missed but her legacy will live on forever in the deeds she did.

Benjamin Hooks grew up getting hand-me downs as the fifth child on a totem pole of seven. He went to Howard University and earned a bachelor degree and went into the Armed Forces. He later earned his law degree from DePaul University and like the tree he kept on growing; he was ordained as a Baptist Minister in 1956.

Rev. Hooks was a joy to be around because his mind was so sharp and witty with catches quotes. He kept us in stitches when NNPA (Black publishers) held our convention in Memphis back in the nineties. I was first vice-president and had to escort him and care for his needs along with that of Congressman Harold Ford Jr. at the time.

Hooks told a reporter of U.S. News & World Report during an interview; “I wish I could tell you every time I was on the highway and couldn’t use a restroom. My bladder is messed up today because of that, and my stomach is messed up to from eating cold sandwiches.”

Rev. Hooks, became a household name when he became Executive Director of the NAACP in 1976. He energized the organization by increasing membership and liquidating its debt. He was a leader in organizing sit-ins and voter registration drives that helped change the south.

Yes when I entered the forest of civil rights, I am glad I did not stay at the edge where things are small. Learning from my dad if you want to get the real timber you have to venture deep into the forest to meet large giants like Dorothy Height and Rev. Benjamin Hooks. Because of them we can drink from any fountain in the nation. We can sit at any public counter where food is served. We can stay at any hotel we can afford. We can vote for the person of our choosing. We can even run and be elected president of the United States because of their life’s commitment to withstand the harsh elements of racial discrimination. Now they are gone like the fallen trees, it is only to make room for others to grow. We will miss both of them and their leadership. Our nation is a better place because they stood as tall trees.

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