Written by Connie Larkman
The Rev. Everett C. Parker, founder of the United Church of Christ Office of Communication, is celebrating a milestone on his birthday Jan. 17, as he turns 100 years old.
Under his leadership, OC was the first church agency to combine press, broadcasting, film, research and educational functions under one head, a practice widely copied by other religious bodies. The UCC's current Office of Communication, Inc. continues Parker's legacy as a leading force in the struggle to ensure that women, persons of color and low-income persons have equal access to ownership, production, employment, and decision-making in media.
"Just as the UCC stands as a beacon of leadership on social justice, from the environment to peace to equality in gender, race, and marriage, the UCC is also founder of the media justice movement," said Cheryl Leanza, current policy advisor of OC, Inc. "Dr. Parker, as the UCC's first communications director, understood in 1957 what we know more strongly today — without a just and accountable media, social justice goals are that much harder to achieve."
Nowhere has Parker's effect on media justice been felt more than in broadcasting. At the urging of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who knew first-hand of the lack of African Americans portrayed positively on television throughout the South, Parker petitioned the FCC to deny the license renewal of WLBT, the local station in Jackson, Miss. The FCC denied the petition. Parker took the matter to court, and over the next five years, the courts ruled that the broadcast industry did serve the public interest. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated WLBT's license on the grounds that it had violated the public trust and was therefore guilty of breach of duty.
Under Parker's leadership, OC also successfully petitioned the FCC to adopt EEO regulations, which leveled the playing field for women and persons of color, both on camera and in broadcast management.
"His work will truly stand for generations as millions will be reminded that he demanded that the "public" remain in control of the public interest and that all share in the ownership of the airwaves in spite of who may from time to time be responsible as stewards by our government," said Earl Williams, chair of the OC, Inc. board.
One of Parker's most successful public relations campaigns was the exoneration of the Wilmington Ten, nine young black men and a white woman who were falsely convicted of arson and conspiracy during racial turmoil at the Wilmington, N.C., high school in 1971. Their efforts to have black students treated equally with whites were led by Benjamin F. Chavis, a UCC employee.
As communication director, Parker mounted a public relations campaign in the world press that brought attention and embarrassment to North Carolina and the United States. The warden complained to the governor about the bad press, as did the U.S. State Department. Eventually, the members of the Wilmington Ten were freed by a federal court. Forty years later, the case was finally resolved. On Dec. 31, 2012, group members were granted pardons of innocence by then-governor of North Carolina, Beverly Purdue.
UCC General Minister and President the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black celebrated "Parker's direct role in advocating and initiating the United Church of Christ's engagement in support of the Wilmington Ten. It took a while, but today we are celebrating the exoneration of those young people who were wrongly accused and unjustly convicted in 1972. I feel fortunate to be serving in a time that has been so significantly touched by his life's work."
As the director of the Office of Communication of the UCC from 1954 to 1983, Parker played a key role in ensuring American media accountability in the public interest. His leadership in the development of influential media reform aimed to improve employment prospects for women and persons of color in broadcasting.
"As the current director of the UCC's Publishing, Identity and Communication Ministry, I am well aware of the legacy of Parker's ministry to this office," said Ann Poston. "If it weren't for his important work in equal opportunities for persons of color and — especially in my case — women, I might not be in this position."
The Parker Lecture, hosted annually by the United Church of Christ's Office of Communication, Inc. (OC, Inc.), was created in 1982 to recognize Parker's pioneering work as an advocate for the public's rights in broadcasting. Poston said, "In standing with oppressed people against the tyranny of broadcasters who felt they owed nothing to the public, Parker carved the path for all media justice work to follow."