Media Civil Rights Lawyer David Honig

David Honig is no mere “weekend warrior” when it comes to activism. For more than half a century he has been at full throttle, fighting civil rights battles on many fronts.

At 65, however, Honig has finally announced his semi-retirement, stepping down as president and executive director of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC), a position he held for 28 years.

“The baton has been passed,” he told the AFRO in a recent interview.

But even semi-retirement for a civil rights lawyer looks different than it would for the average person.

Honig co-founded MMTC in 1986 after his experience as a research director for an antipoverty agency that opposed racial discrimination in broadcast employment and consistently negative portrayals of minorities in the news influenced his outlook. And, for almost three decades, Honig has led the organization in being a key voice in representing minority, civil rights and religious national organizations in proceedings before the Federal Communications Commission and otherwise fighting to end discrimination and advance minority interests in telecommunications policy.

In addition to this full-time work, Honig has served as chief counsel pro bono to the Florida NAACP, to which he has commuted weekly for more than 15 years. And, more recently, he helped to launch the Energy Equity Alliance, a civil rights group focused on advancing the interests of the poor and minorities in the energy industry, both as consumers and managers/owners.

Honig will continue to work with all three organizations, and he addresses his legacy, continuing work and what semi-retirement looks like to him in a Q&A with the AFRO.

AFRO: What was your ultimate goal with the founding of MMTC and assess its progress in achieving that goal?

DH: We sought to open every aspect of the media and telecom industries – employment, procurement, governance, ownership – to full minority participation. It’s a work in progress. We’ve had considerable success diversifying the workplaces on and off the air in the television industry, and we’ve made great progress on broadband adoption. But we’ve had less success in securing and maintaining minority ownership in any of the industries.

AFRO: You mentioned that the loss of the Minority Tax Certificate—a program that quintupled minority media ownership by allowing telecommunications owners to defer paying capital gains taxes if they sold their businesses to minorities—was a major defeat. Any other major setbacks in your advocacy career? And what about notable wins?  

DH: We lost race-conscious programs in the Supreme Court’s Adarand v. Pena decision in 1995, and we also failed this year to secure a middle ground approach to the open Internet that would not impede innovation and new entry. Our most notable wins included the adoption of a voucher program for low-income families to use to buy set-top boxes attendant to the DTV conversion; the preservation of the Lifeline telephone adoption program for the poor; our 2002 rescue of the EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) rules, and the FCC’s decision to open the door to overseas capital in broadcasting, which is especially beneficial to minority owners.

AFRO: What precipitated your involvement in civil rights activism—was it inherited? Was there a particular moment or an epiphany that decided you on this course?  

DH: I became involved in the movement 1962 through my church, came up as a teenager through the SCLC and the NAACP, and at my mom’s encouragement I ultimately decided to be a civil rights lawyer. So I’ve been doing this work for 52 years.  I can probably give the movement another 30-40 years if I’m lucky.

AFRO: What has kept you energized to keep on waging “the good fight” all these years?  

DH: Knowing that it is in fact “the good fight.”

AFRO: Will you continue to work with the Florida NAACP in your semi-retirement?

DH: Oh absolutely. Our main issues in Florida are voting rights, education and police misconduct. We have 23 participating attorneys in Florida who I manage. All of us are volunteers. They’re some of the finest people you’d ever want to know and work with.

AFRO: Talk about the Energy Equity Alliance—its purpose, importance and your level of involvement as it moves forward.

DH: Having worked in the telecom regulatory space, practicing before the FCC, I got to know a host of colleagues in the closely related field of energy regulation.  Amazingly, for a huge and highly influential industry, there is no “MMTC” type organization – no civil rights advocacy group – focusing on the energy industry.  So I founded EEA and an affiliated research group, the Energy and Social Justice Project, seeded them and got them going.  Clearly there needs to be an advocate for minorities and the poor in an industry that produces an essential public good, and that constitutes – like media/telecom – about 1/6 of the economy.

AFRO: You are in semi-retirement… do you think you will ever fully retire—sit back and relax on a beach somewhere, etc?  

DH: Oh goodness no. What for? I would be bored before noon!

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