Editor’s Note: Each year the United Church of Christ holds a Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications gathering in Washington, D.C. On October 13, 2016 the Parker Lecture was delivered by Reverend Traci Blackmon of Ferguson, Missouri. The Newton Minnow Award was presented to Federal Communications Commissioner Mignon Clyburn for her efforts to reform predatory prison phone rates and to modernize the Lifeline program to extend telecommunication service to poor families. And Center for Rural Strategies president and Daily Yonder publisher, Dee Davis, was awarded the Everett C. Parker Award in honor of his service to rural and Appalachian communities. These are his remarks.
Cheryl Leanza, Policy Advisor, United Church of Christ: Back in the early 1970’s Dee Davis distinguished himself by serving as the first youth appointee on the Kentucky Commission on Children and Youth, and as a delegate to the White House conference on children in 1970. In 1973 he arrived at Appalshop, the arts and cultural center in Whitesburg, Kentucky that made its mark by the way in which it highlighted the life and social issues of Appalachia. Dee arrived as a trainee and rapidly rose to be president. During his 18 years as executive producer the organization created more than 50 documentaries for public television. Including, On Our Own Land, which won the Alfred Dupont Award, the equivalent of the Pulitzer prize for broadcast journalism. The program focused on the successful effort to change a law that allowed coal companies to stripmine on private land without the owner’s consent. Under Dee’s leadership, Appalshop also established a media training program for youth and launched WMMT FM, mountain community radio to give a voice to the music, culture, social and political issues of the coalfields in Appalachia.
In 2000 Dee noticed that rural Americans around the country faced the same issues, whether they lived in the South Dakota, the Sacramento Valley, or coastal Maine. So he founded the Center for Rural Strategies to improve economic and social conditions for rural communities, both at home and around the world through the innovative use of communications. Since then, he and the Center have been instrumental in building and managing the National Rural Assembly, a coalition of more than 1,000 organizations and individuals seeking to promote the concerns of rural America. In the Center’s early days it learned a television network was in the process of developing a reality show that it called the Real Beverly Hillbillies. The concept was to move a poor rural family into a Los Angeles mansion presumably so we could all sit around and laugh at them as they tried to figure out how to clean the pool.
Through skillful use of media and organizing, Dee led the Center in persuading the network to abandon the show. That kind of advocacy continues today through the Center’s online publication, The Daily Yonder, which is a source of news, commentary, research and features focused on rural America. As Dee put it, “We believe that rural America’s fate is interrelated with those of metropolitan and urban America. Building stronger rural communities helps the nation as a whole. When we are stronger individually, we are stronger as we work with each other.” And Dee’s impact goes beyond rural America. Because within the advocacy community, Dee has a reputation as a wise soul who can always be counted on for practicality and insight. Dee’s strength lies in his vast knowledge of his own community while understanding the humanity we all share. So it is my really incredible privilege to award the 2016 Everett C. Parker award to Dee Davis.
Dee Davis: Thanks Cheryl. Thanks UCC. This is wonderful. When I got the call from Cheryl I was stunned and then immediately I thought, well this vindicates a lot of hillbilly Sunday school teachers who gave up on me as a lost cause. Then I started to remember this particular Sunday school class, I was 13 or 14. It was a lesson on evolution. Reverend Wood came down to supervise it because it was so important, and he and I got into a terrible dustup. And I kept trying to make the case that, “Yes, we can be made in the image of God and yes we can also be the product of evolution. And he said, “Dee, you’re saying God looks like a monkey.” And I would say no. He said, “Dee, where is your faith?” And in a way that’s been the central question all along. What do we believe? Whom do we trust? What do we believe is coming around the bend?
So, I was fortunate to fall in with this extraordinary group of media artists and media activists who were trying to say something about our community. And the reason that this center was in my town was because people in this town declared a War on Poverty. People here in Washington decided that there should be a special program to train poor, minority youth in filmmaking. And the people on that board after Jack Willis made the powerful documentary, “Appalachia: Rich Land Poor People,” decided they should also put a center in a mostly white coal mining community in east Kentucky. For us it was really young people training other young people. It was like take this machine and you aim it at your grandparent’s generation and they tell you about coal mining or quilting or what’s wrong with this place or what’s beautiful here. And you get your movie out in the world. And then you find out that in other cities and towns there were other people doing the same thing. Using the same tools to talk about their communities and to stop a war and to pool resources to buy a $20,000 camera.
And because of this event, I was remembering as I often do, this time that several of us, maybe 15 or 20, were summoned to the Macarthur Foundation in Chicago by Bill Kirby who had been John MacArthur’s lawyer who convinced him to start the foundation. This was his last day as acting president. Kirby was not a particularly kind man. But we media makers would sit there and talk purposefully about what it was we wanted to do. And then he would leave the room to sign some piece of paper, and we would look at each other and ask what are we doing here? And what’s he want to fund. And then he would come back and we would act purposeful again. And finally someone said, “Mr. Kirby what do you want from us?”
He said, “It’s 1961 I’m with the U.S. delegation to Berlin. We find out that that night the East Germans are going to close the Brandenburg gate. Press asked Willy Brandt, the Mayor, what does that mean? He says, well if they seal the gate but not other parts of the wall that’s one response, and if they continue to let the trains go through, that’s another.”
He said then it came that night and he was in his hotel room putting on his pajamas and he says ‘Kirby, you lazy bones, there’s history being made. Get out there.’
He dresses, goes down to the lobby, and then outside to get a cab. He talks to the taxi driver, told him what he wanted to do, and the driver said, ‘Are you crazy? I’m not doing that.’ So Mr. Kirby went back inside and talks to the night manager and the night manager came out and told the driver he had to do it. So Kirby got in the back of the cab. With this sullen taxi driver they make their way to the Brandenburg gate and parks there to watch. Because it had never been closed off before, it was a slow process, hours with sledge hammers. Kirby spots a late night cafe open, walks over and purchases two cups of cocoa and a couple of slices of black forest cake. He comes back and shares as a way to make peace with the cab driver. And through the night they watched the gate shut.
So now, jump ahead, it’s 1989, and Mr. Kirby is in New York in a cab and he’s going down Sixth Avenue. They hear a report on the radio: The Berlin Wall’s been breached. The East Germans have pushed their way through the Brandenburg gate. He tells the cab driver, “Stop I have to find a bakery.” They see one ahead. And you know in New York how they pull those shutters down over those glass doors when they’re going to close a place down. It wasn’t all the way down, and he knocked on the glass at the bottom of the door. A woman comes, bends down and says, we are closed. He says, “You don’t understand. I must have a piece of Black Forest cake. It’s very important.” He says finally she relents, thinking it must be for some sentimental reason. So the woman goes back in, returns, and shoves a piece of Black Forest cake out on a paper plate. Mr. Kirby stands on the sidewalk and eats the cake with his fingers.
Then he turns to us in the room and he says, “You, you are the witnesses. You are the ones that can make things better.” And then he bends his head and begins to weep. He says, “Please excuse me. I’m an old man. And old men cry.”
So I woke up today, and I now I am an old man. At least old enough to understand part of what it was that Reverend Parker was saying, what Mr. Kirby was saying. We have these powerful tools. Cameras and computers and broadcast licenses. And we can use them for a lot of meanness. To divide people and to make them feel like they were never made in the image of God. Or we can use them for healing, to pull people together, and to help give people faith in what they might find when they get around the bend.