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Political, civil rights figures eulogize Benjamin Hooks

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Political, civil rights figures mourn
  • NEW: He "leaves big shoes behind, and none of us can fill them," NAACP chief says
  • NEW: Urban League president praises his work in the trenches, juggling of responsibilities
  • Hooks, 85, died last week after a lengthy illness, NAACP officials said
  • Hooks led the NAACP from 1977 to 1992

(CNN) -- Scores of mourners packed a Memphis, Tennessee, church Wednesday for the funeral of Dr. Benjamin Hooks, a civil rights leader described as deeply inspirational and widely influential.

Hooks, who led the NAACP from 1977 to 1992, died last week at the age of 85 after a lengthy illness.

Neighbors, friends, family and political and civil rights figures filed into the Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ, where they watched a film that showed Hooks making a rousing speech and a montage of pictures celebrating his career and life. The historical imagery was accompanied by rocking spiritual music.

Speakers delivered eulogies as Hooks' casket sat in front of the church pulpit.

Noting that civil rights leader Dorothy Height, who died Tuesday, had been known as the "godmother" of the civil rights movement, Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, told the audience that they gathered to honor the "godfather of the NAACP and the civil rights movement."

"Dr. Hooks leaves big shoes behind, and none of us can fill them," Jealous said.

Marc H. Morial, National Urban League president and CEO, praised Hooks' collaborative bent. He believed in groups working together and not engaging in turf wars, Morial said.

Hooks, he said, believed "civil rights was a lifelong commitment," and while he was known for his strong oratory, his work in the trenches and his juggling of responsibilities were the qualities that made him effective.

Morial said Hooks believed that "if you choose to serve, it cannot be a part-time thing, it cannot be a sometime thing, it cannot be a pretend game. ... It must be in your heart, soul and DNA."

The Tennessee House canceled its activities so lawmakers could attend the funeral in Hooks' hometown.

Hooks, who grew up in the segregated South, was "a vocal campaigner for civil rights in the United States," the NAACP said when it announced his death.

He was a lawyer and an ordained Baptist minister who joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and led the NAACP for 15 years, it said.

Video: Benjamin Hooks' widow speaks

The organization "was suffering from declining membership and prestige when Hooks assumed his role as executive director," a University of Memphis biography says. The NAACP added several hundred thousand new members during his tenure, it says.

The civil rights organization worked with Major League Baseball on a program that expanded employment opportunities for African-Americans in baseball, including positions as managers, coaches and in franchise executive offices, the NAACP said.

Hooks was nominated to the Federal Communications Commission in 1972. He became the agency's first black commissioner and was with the agency for five years before leaving to serve with the NAACP.

He also worked with colleagues to set up a program in which more than 200 corporations agreed to participate in economic development projects in black communities, the NAACP said.

President George W. Bush awarded Hooks the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in November 2007.

"As a civil rights activist, public servant and minister of the gospel, Dr. Hooks has extended the hand of fellowship throughout his years," Bush said.

"It was not an always ... easy thing to do. But it was always the right thing to do."