Witnessing history: Large Tar Heel audience hears from trailblazer Karen Parker ’65 in the 2020 Eve Marie Carson Lecture

By Grace Lamb-Atkinson

This year, communities across the country, including at UNC-Chapel Hill, came together to face unprecedented challenges while also delving into a nationwide racial reckoning. This year’s Eve Carson Memorial Lecture on Wednesday, Dec. 2 by journalist Karen Parker ’65 helped a 600-plus virtual audience explore the complex history that led to this unique moment.

Parker is the first African American woman undergraduate to attend UNC-Chapel Hill.  She graduated in 1965 with a degree in journalism from what is now UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. In a conversation with UNC Hussman Dean Susan King, Parker shared powerful reflections on her difficult yet rewarding path at Carolina.

Parker, a native of Winston-Salem, was a leader in the civil rights movement on campus, participating in sit-ins, marches and protests, and was arrested and jailed twice. She also continued to pursue her journalism degree while serving as the editor of the UNC Journalist. She  was inducted into the Order of the Valkyries while a Carolina student.

Her diary in the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library contains accounts of the civil rights movement in Chapel Hill and her experiences on campus. She went on to become a prolific newspaper copy editor.

“You shaped the century with your voice and your editing,” King noted. “You left a mark on our campus.”

Parker read selections from her diary throughout the evening, using the words she wrote as a student to convey the pain and loneliness of her position on campus, coupled with her repeated determination to “prove my worth and show ’em.”

Later, through her mentors at the journalism school and subsequent work at newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, Parker found her calling as a distinguished journalist and copy editor.

Despite the challenges, she told King, “I owe Carolina the beginnings of me.”

“Learn from every single being”

That deep self-reflection fit with the values of the Eve Marie Carson Lecture Series. The annual lecture honors the memory of Carson, the late student body president who first established the program as the “Distinguished Speakers Series” in 2007.

The lecture was presented by the Carolina Women’s Leadership Council in partnership with the Will Froelich Honors Fellows. The Carolina Women’s Leadership Council is a group committed to promoting leadership and philanthropy among the Carolina community. The Froelich Honors Fellowships are awarded to prospective Honors Carolina students in memory of late incoming student Will Froelich.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz highlighted Carson’s legacy as written in her quote on her campus memorial: “Learn from every single being, experience and moment. What a joy it is to search for lessons and goodness and enthusiasm in others.”

As Karen Parker told King and the audience, she learned from her experiences and moments in Chapel Hill and searched for those lessons throughout her career.

“Show ’em”

Parker transported the audience to the turbulent 1960s on campus, starting the evening with evocative excerpts from her diaries on events ranging from the Kennedy assassination, to an encounter with the Ku Klux Klan, to watching an historic Academy Awards ceremony with fellow students. All were described with journalistic clarity and detail by a young woman who came to Carolina from the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.

She learned to record the history around her from a fellow journalist at the Winston-Salem newspaper, who told Parker to channel her many frustrations on campus by writing them down.

Those frustrations bubbled up during that Oscars ceremony watch party in 1964 where, Parker wrote, a group of girls jeered singer Sammy Davis Jr.

“I'm not very well liked by white girls,” she reflected in the diary. “It's hard trying to fight bitterness almost every day. … It’s hard keeping your head up.”

But seeing Sidney Poitier win an Oscar — and quiet the jeering girls — in that same ceremony inspired her to keep fighting.

“It hurts to sense that many people assume that you’re stupid and can’t do anything. But all these things … make me want more and more to show ’em.”

That mix of hurt, defiance and pride ran throughout many of Parker’s reflections. The pain of the exclusion she often felt from white students “will stick with me until my final day on this earth,” she told King.

But she came to Carolina, and stuck it out once there, because “I was determined to do something about it.”

“I felt obliged to try to be a good example and seek what progress I could make there. … I just wanted to show ’em that their perceptions of me and of black people — that it was wrong.”

Some of Parker’s fellow students remained stuck in their ways, and Chapel Hill remained segregated throughout her time on campus. But Parker joined others fighting for equality in the community, setting up an informal local civil rights movement headquarters at Harry’s Bar and Grill in Chapel Hill. She also found students who became lifelong friends — some of whom were in the audience Wednesday.

Parker read a striking diary excerpt about an event that demonstrated the strength of some of those friendships. In the Fall of 1964, she and other activists who had previously been jailed for protesting in Chapel Hill held a reunion party that was attacked by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Parker’s friends threw her into the back of a nearby Volkswagen Beetle and piled on top of her, hiding her from view until they were sure the threat was gone.

“There were some good people, people who were fair and open-minded and got to know me,” she concluded.

“You need some friends,” Parker advised today’s students who may feel excluded on campus.

“Going through school at Carolina, it was not just the academics. … Being around people and sharing their experiences and what their lives were like opened my eyes to a new world I didn't even know existed.”

“A great big role”

But the academics were just as important. King and the audience wondered how Parker stayed motivated at Carolina through all the roadblocks she faced.

“Somewhere along the line, I realized it was a doggone good education,” she said of Carolina.

“After I got out of school and was working and I was around other journalists and such, I realized that my background, my education, the things I was taught, were really pretty outstanding.”

Parker credited the journalism school’s influence with her professional development. She particularly highlighted legendary professor Walter Spearman, who encouraged her to pursue journalism through extracurricular opportunities.

That education led to a prolific newspaper career. Though she started out after graduation as a reporter in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Parker quickly found her true love: copy editing. “The copy desk is the one that really determines the agenda,” she said. She dreamt of working on the copy desk of one of the country’s biggest newspapers.

And this being Karen Parker, she made that dream come true. She eventually got a job on the national copy desk of the Los Angeles Times. There, she was again a witness and recorder of history.

She described the newsroom adrenaline and fierce debates over coverage of events from the Jonestown Massacre to Magic Johnson’s AIDS diagnosis.

“Things happened all the time and it was just a great big role,” she reminisced.

Parker stayed at the L.A. Times for 15 years, eventually becoming Sunday News Editor. She later returned to the Winston-Salem Journal, from which she retired in 2010. She was inducted into the NC Media & Journalism Hall of Fame in 2012 by King.

Parker told King that her firm academic background gave her the foundation she needed for that success.

“I owe it all to UNC, to the school of journalism.”

“They're forging their own way”

Reflecting on the student journalists in the audience, Parker said she knew firsthand the influence they would have on their industry.

Journalism “needs the diversity,” she said. “You need the age range.” She credited the diverging viewpoints of her fellow L.A. Times staff with producing the balanced paper she knew and loved.

Despite the challenges she faced, Parker is glad that her path has served as a guiding light for UNC’s journalism and media students.

“A lot of the bad times that I had to go through, and other trailblazers had to go through, were kind of paving the way for people coming behind us,” she said.

But when King asked if she saw today’s journalism students as her legacy, Parker gave the credit right back.

“They’re their own people. They’re forging their own way.”

“A shining light”

Parker and King ended the lecture reflecting on the legacy of young people like Eve Carson and Will Froelich.

The mothers of Froelich and Carson were in the audience, and Molly Froelich reflected that the lecture honored the spirit of both.

“Will and Eve never actually knew each other but they were kindred spirits in their passion for service, academics, people and all things Carolina blue,” she said.

Parker, who knew Carson from their joint work on the alumni board, called her a “shining light.” Humbled to be chosen for the lecture, she wanted “to do a good job in Eve’s honor, because she deserves a good job.”

The group of Tar Heels and friends who got a front-row seat to Carolina history on Wednesday night would surely agree that Parker rose to that challenge.

Watch the entire conversation via TarHeelsTogether here.