An article in the Journal of Employee Communication Management at Ragan.com narrates how Terry Edmonds, former speechwriter of then-President Bill Clinton and current speechwriter of Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, rose from poverty and racial discrimination to become the only African American at the top of his field.
According to the article, Edmonds grew up in a working class family in the ghetto of the Baltimore projects. Although his family was sometimes on welfare, he credited his getting out of that environment to innate determination, his mother’s religious faith, his discovery of books as a young child and his ability to write. Writing also gave him an outlet for his emotions.
Edmonds graduated with a degree in English from a scholarship granted by Morgan State, a small black Baltimore college. He was the first in his family to be a college graduate.
In the early Seventies, however, the article points out, there weren’t many white-collar jobs open to African Americans. Edmonds, therefore, started out by selling chemicals for Dow Corp. After a while, he returned to Baltimore to write but didn’t get journalism jobs at the Baltimore Sun or the News-American. Neither was he taken in by radio or television. He ended up in public relations as a communications specialist at United Way of Baltimore and then as PR director at the Maryland Science Center. From there he progressed to working at an advertising agency, a local brewery and the Mass Transit Administration before “hitting the glass ceiling” in 1980. He was reportedly the only African American in most of the communication departments he worked in.
Edmonds then went to Washington, D.C. where he saw more government jobs open to him because of the government’s commitment to affirmative action and other diversity policies. He became press secretary to U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume and in 1993 worked for Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala. Finally, in 1995 he got a position in the White House and, four years later, became then-President Clinton’s chief speechwriter.
The article says Edmonds believes his success was fueled by his good writing and good interpersonal skills. He emphasizes that even as he was aware of injustices, he channeled his anger to “overcome the odds,” having learned to do this even as a teenager in the Sixties when he always sided with the “Martin Luther King crowd” rather than the “Malcolm X crowd.” He points out that many African Americans of his generation “self-destructed” from anger at perceived injustice. He, on the other hand, sees it as a luxury that African American communicators do not have. He, thus, warns young African Americans not to allow anger, frustration and negativity to destroy them or to become the defining factor in their lives.
The article also cites Edmonds saying he admires Clinton’s “extraordinary comfort-level with African Americans” and believes that term to be “the most diverse presidential administration in the history of the country.” He proudly says, “The speeches I wrote for Clinton including one on the occasion of the 1995 Million Man March helped the president initiate a dialogue on race and bring people together.”
A case in point referred to was Clinton’s Rose Garden speech on the Welfare Reform Bill in 1996. Edmonds wasn’t the chief speechwriter yet at the time but since he was the only African American writer in the White House and the president had come to trust him, he was asked to work on it. Edmonds reveals he disagreed with welfare reform, as did other African Americans in the administration, but decided that he would rather have a hand in how Clinton would announce the bill rather than have no say on it. He, therefore, wrote the speech in a way that made sure the president was “not abandoning his commitment to help people up from poverty.” Such a temperate attitude and ability for thoughtful compromise is a mark he is proud to make.
After Clinton’s term, Edmonds continued to write freelance for him for a year before going on to work for the American Association of Retired Persons and then becoming speechwriter to Time Warner’s Parsons whom Fortune magazine called the third most powerful African American executive in corporate America. He still writes on poverty, education and “how arts can be socially healing.”
The article says Edmonds expresses wonder at how far he has come although he still has frustrations such as seeing “young white people who have leapfrogged into jobs I couldn’t have imagined in my 20s” and seeing almost no African Americans among current speechwriters.
At the New York Speechwriters Roundtable he recently attended, Edmonds was quoted by the article saying, “There were 40 or 50 people there, and I was the only African American in the room. At some level I am still an angry black man. But what counts is what you do with that.”
Here’s a man whose words are definitely worth listening to.