In the mid-1960s, the Rev. Everett Parker found himself embroiled in a scene that could have been in a thriller novel.
The United Church of Christ official, who was white, was in Mississippi to challenge the broadcasting license of a local TV station that didn’t allow African Americans on the air unless they were being arrested.
Because of threats of violence by station supporters, he was given detailed instructions before meeting with a local black politician.
“You’d drive by the house, turn around and turn off all your lights,” Parker said in a 1986 Chicago Tribune interview, “particularly the dome light because you could easily be shot when you opened the car door.”
Parker, 102, whose years-long struggle to overturn the station’s ownership established the public’s right to a voice in the granting of broadcast licenses, died Thursday in a White Plains, N.Y., hospital of natural causes.
The death was announced by the church. Parker, who fought for other measures to force broadcasters to more widely serve communities, was head of the UCC’s office of communications from its founding in 1957 until his retirement in 1983.
Although the Federal Communications Commission in the 1960s strove to block his attempts to have the Mississippi station’s license revoked, current FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler issued a statement upon Parker’s death, saying the reformer “was instrumental in ensuring the public could have its voice heard at the FCC, and perhaps no single person has had a greater impact on this country’s communications landscape.”
Parker’s crusade against racist television stations began with a phone call in 1963 from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had previously met with Parker about the UCC’s role in the civil rights movement.
“King said, ‘Will you do something about the way we’re being treated on radio and television?’” Parker said in the Chicago Tribune interview.
Perhaps no station was more flagrant in its racism than WLBT-TV, an NBC affiliate in Jackson, Miss.
In 1955, when civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall — who was later appointed to the Supreme Court — appeared on the “Today” show, WLBT suddenly interrupted the interview, putting up a sign that said, “Sorry, Cable Trouble.” The station manager later proudly declared he had pulled the interview, saying that TV networks had become instruments of “Negro propaganda.”
The Cable Trouble sign was used repeatedly when African American leaders were on the network. Local black politicians were not only banned from WLBT’s own news shows, they couldn’t even buy an ad during election campaigns.
Because broadcast license holders are supposed to serve the public interest, Parker asked the FCC to hold a hearing on the station’s license renewal. But the commission refused, saying that individuals and organizations have no standing to challenge a license unless applying to take it over.
Parker then quietly established a viewing post in the home of a Jackson family sympathetic to his cause. He trained a group of 22 local citizens in how to carefully monitor and note what the station was showing. But he was careful not to learn their names.
“When the time came that I had to testify, I said I didn’t know any of them, and I didn’t,” he said in a 2008 interview for the “Democracy Now” news program. “So I never named one, which was very important down there, because years later, the good old boys identified the family … and they drove that family out of Jackson.”
With evidence gathered, Parker went back to the FCC, which nonetheless renewed the license under the same ownership, though for a year as opposed to a regular three-year span. Still, the station refused to substantially change its policies.
The matter went back and forth in court until 1969, when the U.S. Court of Appeals sided with Parker, stripping the owners of the license. The decision was written by Warren Burger, who the same year was appointed to the Supreme Court.
“After nearly five decades of operation,” Burger wrote, “the broadcast industry does not seem to have grasped the simple fact that a broadcast license is a public trust subject to termination for breech of duty.”
Though Parker worked for a church organization much of his life, he did not see his mission as promoting religious programming. “If churches are on the air,” he said in a 1983 New York Times interview, “they have a responsibility to render a service, not just to use the airwaves for their own self-interest or to raise money to buy more time to raise more money.”
Everett Carleton Parker was born in Chicago on Jan. 17, 1913. He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago in 1935 and then produced programs for local churches.
In 1939, he enrolled in the Chicago Theological Seminary and upon graduating with a divinity degree in 1943, he worked for NBC in various positions, including war program monitor.
He is survived by daughters Ruth Weiss and Eunice Kolczun; son Truman Parker; seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Parker’s wife, Geneva, died in 2004.
Broadcasters no longer exclusively rule home video entertainment, which has weakened the power of license stipulations. Cable, satellite and Internet providers can operate without pledging public service, and that worried Parker.
“As new technologies come along,” he said in the New York Times interview, “there has been no public debate on how we should use them.
“It’s not even like the early days of broadcasting when regulation was discussed.”