But the kids he was trying to reach had never faced such discrimination. They were often the children -- in some cases, grandchildren -- of college graduates who had benefited from affirmative action programs, and their arguments in favor of the programs that granted them preferential treatment were all about promoting "diversity."
The irony couldn't have been greater at one of our last joint appearances. We were at a New England prep school debating affirmative action before an audience of high school students, which included a number of young blacks who, in Hooks' youth, could not have imagined attending such an institution. We'd gone through our prepared remarks and some back and forth with questions from the audience when Hooks decided he wanted to end the program on a high note. He stood up from the table and pulled me up with him, locking arms.
"We shall overcome, someday," he sang, in a deep, rich baritone, swaying in time with the song. And, of course, I joined in, as did the faculty on stage and the kids in the audience. But the fact we were there and that the audience included young, privileged children of all races whose futures couldn't have been brighter sang louder than our voices that we had overcome, not someday, but now.
Benjamin Hooks lived to see the promise of the movement he helped lead, even if he wouldn't have admitted it.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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