NASHVILLE -- Civil rights leader Benjamin L. Hooks, who shrugged off courtroom slurs as a young lawyer before earning a pioneering judgeship and reviving a flagging NAACP, died Thursday in Memphis following a long illness. He was 85.

Hooks -- whose 1965 appointment to the Tennessee Criminal Court made him the first black judge since Reconstruction in a state trial court anywhere in the South -- took over as the NAACP's executive director at a time when the organization's stature had diminished in 1977. Years removed from the civil rights battles of the 1960s, the group was $1 million in debt and its membership had shrunk to 200,000 members from nearly a half-million a decade earlier.

"Black Americans are not defeated," he told Ebony magazine soon after his induction. "The civil rights movement is not dead. If anyone thinks that we are going to stop agitating, they had better think again."

By the time he left as executive director in 1992, the group had rebounded, with membership growing by several hundred thousand.

S.C. Sen. Robert Ford, a Democratic candidate for governor, said he worked with Hooks while Hooks was on the Federal Communications Commission and Ford was a community developer in Charleston.

While Hooks was with the NAACP, he went further than other leaders by going to jail with the demonstrators. "He didn't just talk to the talk. He walked the walk," Ford said.

U.S. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, said Hooks left his mark on American society because he was "dedicated to bridging the gap between whites and blacks by encouraging open discussion about the issues facing the African-American community."

The Rev. Joseph Darby, first vice president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP and senior pastor of Morris Brown AME Church, said Hooks "played a critical role because he played a bridging role."

Hooks was part of the older generation who faced "withering bigotry," Darby said but had a broad enough view of the future to pursue new strategies.

Dot Scott, president of the Charleston chapter of the NAACP, was impressed by how down to earth Hooks was.

"You felt comfortable with him," she said. "It was like talking to someone you've known a long time, like an uncle or something."

Cleveland Sellers, president of Voorhees College in Denmark and a former civil rights activist, said "It's certainly a tremendous loss because of his credentials as a civil rights veteran, attorney, minister, and community leader in Memphis."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.