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Powerful stories were retold today as a faith leader, a government regulator and a rural advocate were honored at the 34th Annual Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C. The annual lecture is sponsored by Office of Communications, Inc. (OC Inc.), the media justice ministry of the United Church of Christ (UCC), which was founded by the late Rev. Parker.

Commissioner Clyburn, Dee Davis, Rev. Traci Blackmon

The Rev. Traci Blackmon, this year’s Parker Lecturer, framed her remarks by recounting a West African proverb: “Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.” Blackmon, currently the UCC’s acting executive minister for justice and witness ministries, came to national attention in the fall of 2014 as part of the pastoral presence working to quell months of civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, following the fatal police shooting of black teenager Michael Brown there.

Blackmon noted that as a young African-American girl growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, and later as pastor of a church near Ferguson, she had learned something of the “power and marginalization of the lion’s story.”

She stressed the importance of understanding the context of a story, and cast the Brown shooting within the history of the St. Louis metropolitan area and a long list of recent shootings of unarmed black men by police officers. She noted that “the mainstream media is not the only resource for hearing the story of the lion,” and pointed to the role that social media had played in the coverage of the Ferguson story.

Rev. Traci Blackmon

But she also spoke, powerfully, of her own temptation to claim the high road but “remove the humanity” of those with whom she disagrees. “But when we do that,” she concluded, “we are not better and we are no more righteous.” She cautioned, “it is too easy to look outside ourselves for the answers that lie within,” because “within us all lies both the lion and the hunter.” “We are experts at extrapolating stories that soothe us, but God has not called us to be comforted, but rather to comfort the afflicted.” 

In her acceptance speech, Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn turned to a Biblical text in accepting the Newton Minow Award, conferred by the UCC in recognition of exemplary government service in support of the public interest. Clyburn, who faced scrutiny when took office in 2009 without previous experience in Washington, quoted from 1 Samuel 16: “people look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” She noted “people had doubts, people drew conclusions, but they did not know what was in my heart.” 

Commissioner Clyburn

Clyburn, who served as acting chair of the agency in 2013, was recognized for her leadership in restricting the predatory telephone rates that had been charged to families and friends of prisoners, and for the agency’s moves to modernize the Lifeline program that helps low-income people afford telecommunications services. She described a recent visit to a correctional facility, looking in the eyes of a small boy who gets few opportunities to visit his incarcerated mother. She noted that in the half-century since Everett Parker founded OC Inc., the “next generation of advanced telecommunications services” present “issues that are increasingly complex.” But, she said, the mission of the FCC still needed to be focused on ensuring that all Americans have access to “robust and affordable telecommunications services.”

Dee Davis, president and founder of the Center for Rural Strategies, received the Everett C. Parker Award for work embodying the principles and values of the public interest in telecommunications and media. Davis got his start as a trainee at Appalshop, the arts and cultural center in Whitesburg, Ky., and eventually rose to be its president.

Dee Davis

Davis expressed his appreciation that “people in this town,” the nation’s capital, had launched the War on Poverty in the 1960s, providing funds that had built the center for “the people in my town,” and teaching him skills in media production. He joked that the award would “vindicate the Hillbilly Sunday School teachers who gave up on me.” Looking back on his career, and the “powerful tools” that are now available—cameras, computers, and broadcast licenses—he urged his audience to “use them for good.” He spoke movingly about the power of being a “witness to history.”

OC Inc. established the Parker Lectureship in 1983 to recognize its founder’s pioneering work as an advocate for the public’s rights in broadcasting. In 1963, Parker filed a petition with the FCC that ultimately stripped WLBT-TV in Jackson, Mississippi, of its broadcast license and established the principle that the public could participate in matters before the agency. Parker died on September 17, 2015 at the age of 102. The Parker Lecture is the only lecture in the country to examine telecommunications in the digital age from an ethical perspective.

More photos, video clips and materials from the Lecture will be available on UCC OC Inc.'s web site in the near future.

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