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The Founding Father of the Black Conservative Movement
This essay is the latest entry in Lee Edwards’s series on unsung conservative heroes—unjustly neglected thinkers, politicians, philanthropists, and artists who have made vital contributions to American conservatism. Read Edwards’s short introduction to the series here.
It was Christmas Eve morning 1979, and Jay Parker was in his downtown Washington office, sorting through the mail of the Lincoln Institute, when the telephone rang. “My name is Clarence Thomas,” boomed a deep voice, “and I like what you have to say!”
For the next forty minutes, Jay mostly listened as Thomas, a black legislative assistant to Senator John Danforth (R-MO), talked about politics, race relations, and how much he enjoyed reading the Lincoln Review’s conservative positions on free enterprise, limited government, and traditional American values.
“I thought I was the only one out there,” Thomas said several times.
It was the beginning of an enduring friendship between the young black lawyer and the founding father of the black conservative movement in America.
Following Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential victory, transition coordinator Edwin Meese III asked Jay Parker to head the team looking at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Jay invited his young protégé Clarence Thomas to join him. The hardworking Thomas wound up cowriting the EEOC report that triggered an invitation to work in the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Thomas hesitated. Until then, he had avoided taking a public position on civil rights issues, knowing that his opposition to racial preferences and school busing would “raise the ire” of the civil rights establishment.
When Thomas sought guidance from Jay Parker, his mentor insisted that civil rights issues were of great importance and Thomas had a contrarian view that the civil rights establishment needed to hear. Thomas still hesitated, uncertain how to proceed, prompting Jay to offer this blunt advice: “Put up or shut up.” Thomas realized that his friend was right. “One might shut up when it doesn’t matter,” he later said, “but when it really counts, we are required to put up.”
Less than a year later, Thomas was named chairman of the EEOC, serving two consecutive terms until 1990, when President George H. W. Bush appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Just a year later, on July 1, 1991, President Bush nominated Thomas to replace the legendary Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, who was retiring from the court after twenty-four years.
After a lengthy confirmation process, including charges of sexual harassment by a former EEOC employee, Thomas joined Associate Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice William Rehnquist as conservatives on the court. Reflecting on his decades-long friendship with Jay Parker, Justice Thomas was unstinting in his praise: “Jay is the most principled person I have met in Washington. Jay has always been there for advice, encouragement, and direction. . . . I know that I wouldn’t be on the Court if I had not met Jay Parker.”
Who is this black conservative who mentored a Supreme Court justice, provided an editorial platform for celebrated black intellectuals like Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, counseled the emerging black leaders of newly liberated African countries, and inspired young Americans white and black with his commitment to individual freedom and responsibility? Who is this unsung hero who founded the modern black conservative movement?
“They Thought They Were All Alone”
James Andrew (Jay) Parker was born on November 11, 1936, in “South Philly,” one of the most economically deprived neighborhoods of Philadelphia. That didn’t matter to Jay, who from the age of nine was independent and self-reliant. There was no odd job that he and his older brother, Bobby, wouldn’t do, including carrying home grocery bags, scrubbing kitchen floors, putting out the ashes from coal furnaces for trash pickup, and taking discarded newspapers and magazines to the salvage shop to receive a penny a pound. “We were big-time capitalists,” recalled Jay wryly.
Jay’s mother came from Savannah, Georgia, along with her father, Moses Butler, who cofounded the Zion Hill Baptist Church in Philadelphia. Jay was inspired by the Sunday services and activities of his grandfather’s church and considered becoming a pastor. He studied the Bible and publications that outlined Christian discipleship and leadership. In religion as well as in politics, Jay Parker was a conservative, explaining, “My Christian faith shaped my life of individualism, liberty, private property, and eternal salvation.”
Always impeccable in a suit and vest and matching fedora, Parker modeled himself after his father and his father-in-law, George (Grandpop) Clark, a sleeping car porter. “My father’s pants always had a sharp crease and his shoes were always shined.” As for “Grandpop,” Parker never saw him without a crisp white shirt and tie. “If the doorbell rang,” he recalled, “he would put on his jacket before he answered the door.”
After graduating from public high school in 1954, Jay worked as a salesman for a Nashville insurance company and continued to read widely in conservative literature, including The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk, Up from Liberalism by William F. Buckley Jr., and The Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater. He was strongly influenced by the anti-statist themes of the classic libertarian work Reclaiming the American Dream by Richard Cornuelle. His political heroes included Senator Robert A. Taft (R-OH), who led the Republican resistance to New Deal government into the early 1950s, and the black journalist, editor, and author George Schuyler, whose satirical style led critics to call him “a black H. L. Mencken.”
In 1961, Jay joined the conservative youth group Young Americans for Freedom and quickly assumed a leadership role. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he spoke on nearly four hundred college campuses in the United States and Canada. His greatest victory as an activist occurred in 1965, when the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company announced that it planned to build a synthetic rubber plant in Communist Romania. Jay helped organize YAF picket lines and demonstrations outside Firestone stores, calling on the U.S. company to abandon its plan. Unimpressed by the threats of a bunch of “kids,” Firestone said it would proceed with construction. YAF then declared that it would hand out 500,000 flyers at the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day informing the tens of thousands at the race as well as the millions watching on television of Firestone’s plan to do business with a communist government. This got Firestone’s attention. The Indianapolis 500 was of enormous importance to Firestone, which used it to heavily promote its tires and other products. YAF added that it was considering hiring an airplane with a large banner reading “Firestone: Don’t Build in Communist Romania!” to fly back and forth all day over the racetrack.
Firestone abruptly canceled the Romanian project. Jay and YAF had “persuaded” Firestone to make the right decision.
Along with his campus talks, Jay became involved in radio, first as an announcer for a Christian program on a Philadelphia station and then as host of a political talk program, Left, Right, and Center, that was popular in Philadelphia political circles. Jay had his greatest impact on the conservative movement through the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, which he founded in 1978. The institute’s primary voice was the Lincoln Review, a quarterly journal. To differentiate the publication, Jay condensed one or two lead articles to eight hundred words and highlighted them in copies sent to key politicians and journalists. His “digest” policy paid off royally when the prestigious Wall Street Journal published an editorial on the Lincoln Review. The piece read in part: “There’s a new magazine with something important to say about the future of the black community in the United States. . . . Its editor says it is meant as a platform for topics and points of view that may fall outside conventionally defined ‘black issues’ and black perspectives but that are nevertheless of significant concern to black Americans.”
Highlights of the first issues ranged from an in-depth profile of General Daniel “Chappie” James, the first black four-star general, to an analysis of the conflict between the black and Jewish communities in America. Roy Innis, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), echoed Russell Kirk and other conservative educators by endorsing tax credits for tuition, arguing that “parents are the principal educators of their children.” “They should have the right,” Innis said, to send their children to schools that “support rather than subvert the goals and standards of their household.”
Walter Williams, then an associate professor of economics at Temple University, wrote that labor unions had deliberately discriminated against minorities and excluded blacks from many job markets. “Black people, like minorities of the past,” Williams wrote, “do not need federal handouts and gifts. Black people need a chance to compete.”
The Lincoln Review also featured the views of another then-unknown black economist, Thomas Sowell of UCLA. Sowell denied that the black experience in industrial America was any different from that of the Irish, the Italian, the Jewish, or the Japanese. To explain the income lag between white and black Americans, the California professor noted that most of the black urban population had been in the city for only two generations. It took time and training, Sowell wrote, for any people with a rural past to adjust to urban life. No other publication in America presented such unorthodox arguments.
“There are hundreds and thousands of black conservatives all across this country,” Jay Parker wrote in an early Lincoln Review article. “Heretofore, they thought they were all alone. Now with the Lincoln Institute they have a platform, a place to share their ideas and their dreams for a better tomorrow.”
To help build a better tomorrow for blacks, Jay resolved to break the racial ceiling in the world of volunteerism. He joined and wound up heading a wide variety of Washington-area charitable groups, including Kiwanis, the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, Goodwill Industries, and the venerable Salvation Army. For his contribution to the National Guard, Jay received the secretary of defense’s medal for outstanding public service. He had given his time to the National Guard, he explained, “because I love my country and I respect the men and women who are in the forefront of our national defense.”
As a student of the Cold War, Jay Parker tracked political developments around the globe, especially in Africa. In the 1970s, many African nations found themselves embroiled in the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. South Africa was a prime target of the Soviets and their fellow travelers. Jay Parker and other members of the American African Affairs Association (AAAA), such as George Schuyler, felt that trading the totalitarian government of white rule for a black-led totalitarian regime led by the Marxist African National Congress was not the answer. They proposed a peaceful transition to a pro-Western government but were unable to win broad public support. Jay and the AAAA also tried to prevent African nations like Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Angola from going Marxist, but they could not prevail against the entrenched liberal establishment. “If the Congressional Black Caucus had worked to develop governments that were more pro-Western and more democratic,” Jay said, “millions of people would not have died in needless tribal conflicts like Darfur.”
In the 1980s, Jay frequently answered the call of the Reagan administration, working as a consultant to Attorney General Ed Meese on a special committee to tackle the problem of missing and exploited children, helping U.S. Information Agency head Charles Wick disseminate a more accurate image of America to the rest of the world, especially in Africa, and assisting Donald Devine, head of the Office of Personnel Management, to improve the quality of the federal workforce. A grateful President Reagan wrote Jay, “Through your efforts, thousands of black Americans have come to realize that limited government and the free enterprise system are the best hope for all Americans—black and white.” Jay responded, “It was an honor to serve one of our greatest presidents.”
Jay Parker never stopped mentoring young conservatives. His mentees included Ron Robinson, the founder and president of Young America’s Foundation; Frank Donatelli, political director in the Reagan White House; and Dr. Robert Moffit, a health expert and senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Parker understood how important the right influences were on young people: in 1973 he published a revealing biography of Angela Davis that described how “a bright young honor student” was transformed into a communist revolutionary by Marxist academic Herbert Marcuse, Black Panther George Jackson, and other anti-American radicals.
“A day without Jay was like a day without sunshine,” remarked a close friend. The friend called Jay a master of PMA (Positive Mental Attitude), saying that “nothing seemed to faze him.” Jay Parker was independent, optimistic, principled, courageous, Gibraltar solid in his faith. “He was one of a rare breed,” Ed Meese said, “a man who does the important work behind the scenes without seeking the limelight of the TV cameras.”
On September 14, 2015, at the age of eighty, Jay Parker went to meet his Maker. His work lives on in the burgeoning black conservative movement.
Lee Edwards is the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation and the author or editor of twenty-five books, including Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution, William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement, and his memoir, Just Right: A Life in Pursuit of Liberty.
Image by Clem Onojeghuo via Unsplash.
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