After spending a year working for a radio station, Parker went to seminary and earned a Ph.D in divinity, and became a minister with the United Church of Christ. He was an early TV preacher with his 30-minute show, Stained Glass Windows, which ran from 1948 to 1949, and was the ABC network’s first religious show. In 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King called Parker on the phone. “King said,” Parker related years later, “‘Will you do something about the way we’re being treated on radio and television?’” Parker looked into one particular TV station, WLBT, the NBC affiliate in Jackson, Miss., whose license was up for renewal. U.S. broadcasters are required by law to act in the public interest, and WLBT, for instance, pre-empted a 1955 network news segment featuring Thurgood Marshall, a black man who was later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The station manager commented that he blocked the segment from air because the networks were promoting “Negro propaganda.” Indeed, it was the station’s unwritten policy to never show black people — unless it was footage of them being arrested. Local black political candidates were not even allowed to buy campaign ads. Rev. Parker formally objected to the station’s license renewal, arguing it was not acting in the public interest, but the Federal Communications Commission rejected his petition, saying individuals and even public service organizations had no right to intervene in licensing issues unless they had applied to buy a station’s license. The point turned into a court battle, and Parker won: in 1969, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against the station, and it lost its license — the first American TV station to ever lose its license for failing to serve the public interest.
“After nearly five decades of operation,” wrote Warren Burger (who later that year was appointed to the Supreme Court), “the broadcast industry does not seem to have grasped the simple fact that a broadcast license is a public trust subject to termination for breach of duty.” WLBT was restarted by a new owner, and became a southern pioneer in racial equity. Meanwhile, the FCC changed its policy to allow the public to have a say in license proceedings. Parker “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,” says the current FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler. Parker continued to fight broadcasters to get them to serve their communities, and in 1957 was the founding head of his church’s Office of Communications until he retired in 1983. “If churches are on the air,” he said upon his retirement, “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.” Rev. Parker died September 17, at 102.