This is an important book. It’s the remarkable first-person story of a self-made man who grew up in the ghetto in Detroit to become a major player in many of the significant political and social change events of the 20th Century. No one taught him how to be a public relations man, but he figured it out himself through intuition, guts, determination and a great instinct for what it takes to earn public trust.
As a high school student, Ofield Dukes was attracted to journalism, but after failing to get into college, he worked as a janitor for two years and then served in the Army. He managed to get into college after his honorable discharge and graduated with a journalism degree, only to find that mainstream journalism jobs were not open to a young man of color in America in 1958. Undeterred, Dukes read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on self-reliance. Its message of having an “ability to deal with adversity and moving on to a higher level of excellence … became my mantra,” he wrote.
After working for The Michigan Chronicle, a black newspaper, and serving as the news director of a fledgling black radio station in Detroit, his reporting caught the eye of a former Detroit prosecutor working in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House, who convinced Dukes to take a job in Washington as Deputy Director of Public Affairs for the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity.
It’s not unusual for young journalists to move from journalism into government public affairs positions; I did that myself a little more than a decade after Dukes did so. But it was a remarkable development for a black man in that era, and it put Dukes in the middle of the civil rights movement at a critical time in history. He found himself in the room with President Johnson and Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey during meetings with many of the great civil rights leaders of the era – Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, John Lewis, Dorothy Height, and others.
Dukes quickly learned that “Nothing happens in the city (Washington, D.C.) without a mixture of public relations and politics.” He also learned how to make the kinds of connections that make public relations and politics succeed. The book is a remarkable series of incredible stories:
There are many more. Through it all, Dukes adhered to the best ethics of public relations, including transparency and telling the truth. He was a man of faith who believed in humility and perseverance. He possessed self-confidence and a passion for excellence.
This book is a great read for the stories and the lessons, but I started this essay by saying the book is important. Here’s why: The public relations profession faces a serious challenge to be more diverse and inclusive of people of all races, ethnicities, genders, sexual preferences, backgrounds and beliefs. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s critical to success as our most important job is to help the enterprises that we advise to be open to and understanding of all views. This is best accomplished with diverse teams.
One of the challenges is a dearth of role models for people of color in our profession. This is not because there weren’t great professionals of color in the history of PR, but because their stories haven’t been told.
Now comes this story of a pioneer, who lifted himself up, persevered through incredible hardships, overcame numerous obstacles, and had a major impact on civil rights and politics in our nation’s capital. He’s a worthy role model, not only for people of color, but for all of us who aspire to leave the world better than we found it. It’s a story worth telling and celebrating.
The original manuscript was written by Dukes prior to his death in 2011. Hats off to Dr. Rochelle Ford and Rev. Dr. Unnia Pettus for bringing it to life, and to Shelley Spector and the PR Museum for publishing it as the first in a series of biographies of diverse pioneers in the profession.
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