Ethel Payne’s Abundance of Nerve

Pioneering journalist Ethel Payne witnessed – and made – history

A decade before her death in 1991, the veteran African American journalist Ethel Payne remarked with some satisfaction that she had been “an eyewitness to so many profound things and so many changes … I’ve had a box seat on history, and that’s a rare thing.” But Payne, born 1911 in Chicago and a granddaughter of slaves, hardly was a spectator at the momentous events she reported during her long career. An advocate and activist, she not only supported civil rights struggles, but participated in and influenced them.

Her strict but loving upbringing by her striving parents evidently gave her the self-confidence she needed to confront racism at all levels, individual and institutional. She challenged US presidents, political candidates, and elected officials, but she also took on her male bosses and sexist civil rights leaders. As her biographer James McGrath Morris puts it in Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, she had “an abundance of nerve”.

As a member of the White House press corps – she was only the third African American issued a White House press pass – Payne confronted presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon over civil rights issues. She covered such epochal struggles as the Montgomery bus boycott triggered by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white person; the violent white backlash to the desegregation of the University of Alabama; the Little Rock, Alabama school crisis; and many others, often putting herself at considerable risk. She was the first journalist prescient enough to note that the rise of young ministers like Martin Luther King signaled a major shift in Civil Rights movement leadership, from labor activists to clergy. She was unafraid of Joe McCarthy and his anticommunist witch-hunts and she sharply criticized right wing and racist labor bureaucrats like the powerful AFL-CIO head, George Meany.

But Payne’s commitments didn’t stop at the borders of the United States. She was an internationalist from an early age; as a high school student, she wrote an essay for a national competition that, says Morris, “made the then rarely heard link between domestic racial justice and decolonization.” She covered the conference of non-aligned third world nations at Bandung, Indonesia in 1955; Ghana’s independence in 1957 and Namibia’s in 1989. In 1990, she met with Nelson and Winnie Mandela in South Africa, interviewing the nation’s first post-apartheid president in his home, while he was in his pajamas and bathrobe.

Despite her remarkable life and accomplishments, Payne largely has been unknown and her legacy obscure – to white America – because she worked mostly for the Chicago Defender, a newspaper that African Americans read avidly and whites rarely, if at all. She first reported from the paper’s hometown and later she became its Washington, DC correspondent. The paper covered stories important to its readership that “mainstream” media ignored – lynching, Jim Crow, civil rights activism – or else reported through a fog of racist assumptions. “Until the Civil Rights movement made its mark, African Americans were absent from the pages of the nation’s white newspapers unless they were accused of a crime,” Morris observes.

Moreover, whereas white media tended to portray civil rights bills as gifts generously bestowed on black Americans, Payne focused on the failures of law to fully protect blacks and guarantee their freedoms. She reported the compromises that weakened legislation and the machinations of politicians, Democratic and Republican, from the south and the north, to obstruct full equality.

It often seems today that black and white Americans live in parallel worlds, with the latter regarding the former with a mix of incomprehension and antipathy. The racial divide was even more pronounced when Payne was a young reporter. The African Americans who read her articles in the Defender revered her; whites had no idea who she was until the ’70s, when, working for CBS, she became the first female African American TV and radio commentator. Morris maintains that many accounts of the Civil Rights movement provide an incomplete picture because they fail to acknowledge the importance of her journalism.

Morris, who is white, had some initial trepidation about taking on Payne’s biography. “Who am I to tell her story?” he asked himself. But he says he “found acceptance and support among family and friends of Payne.” Morris had access to previously untapped material – Payne’s personal papers, oral histories, FBI documents, as well as her published writing. Morris writes that he identifies with Payne’s approach to journalism – complete objectivity is impossible, but fairness is paramount – as well as her conviction that journalism “liberates and empowers one to be able to write empathetically about people, events and ideas outside of one’s own experience.”

Payne grew up in a segregated Chicago, with 90 percent of the African American population confined to the so-called Black Belt on the city’s South Side. Chicago blacks built “their own city within a city”, establishing businesses – banks, life insurance companies, real estate offices, retail outlets, funeral homes, theaters, taxi cab companies, and newspapers. In 1905, Robert Sengstacke Abbott, a son of former slaves, founded the Chicago Defender; the paper, which initially came out as a four-page, broadsheet weekly, was an immediate success. Within a decade, its circulation exceeded 50,000, but the actual number of readers was much higher, as the paper was passed from hand to hand.

In the South, it was too dangerous to receive the paper through the mail, so Abbott formed an alliance with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Every week Pullman porters received bundles of the Defender, which they would drop off at churches and barbershops along their routes. (Payne’s father William, who had migrated to Chicago from the South, was a Pullman porter.) By 1930, two-thirds of the paper’s 130,000 circulation was outside Chicago. “The Defender‘s national readership was considered so threatening to racial order,” Morris writes, “that the U.S. government military intelligence created a 64-page report on its circulation growth, complete with maps, as if charting the progress of an invading force.” The paper transcended place to become “America’s black newspaper”.

Payne came to the Defender after several unsatisfying jobs but with a history of activism. In 1940, three prominent civil rights leaders, including Sleeping Car Porters head A. Philip Randolph, called for a march on Washington to demand an end to segregation in the military and defense industries. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order requiring government contractors to not discriminate on the basis of race or religion, Randolph called off the march, instead creating the March on Washington Movement to make sure the Administration lived up to its promises. Payne, then a member of the Chicago NAACP, joined the Movement.

Payne, however, chafed at the sexism of Randolph and other men in the Movement. “Many of Randolph’s numerous female supporters tolerated the paternalistic treatment of women, but not Payne,” Morris writes. Payne did not hesitate to call Randolph on the phone and tell him, “I refuse to be taken for granted and I hope I made myself clear.”

A 1947 incident demonstrated her fearlessness and strength of character. When police arrested some two dozen black men outside a bar in her neighborhood, she questioned the cops about the roundup. They told her to mind her own business, but she protested, “This is not Mississippi or Alabama.” A cop struck her and dragged her to the paddy wagon. A police captain at the local jail tried to persuade her to go home, but she insisted on being booked. She also demanded the release of the arrested men. The men were released, and a judge later threw the case out.

Her journalism career began when the Chicago Defender published as articles some extracts from a diary she kept while working as an assistant service club director at a US military base in Japan. She wrote about African American GIs in Japan, observing that despite the problems they encountered in the army, life in Japan “became an escape from the irking confinement of the social caste system and segregation which had left behind in the States.”

In 1963, A Philip Randolph called for another march on Washington to emphasize the lack of progress in reaching the Civil Rights movement’s goals. Liberals and liberal organizations supported the march, but the AFL-CIO, where Payne had worked for a time, refused to. She attended the March, but felt that in one regard little had changed. She observed that just as with Randolph’s Movement two decades earlier, “women continued to be given a backseat.”

In the ’60s, Payne’s beat extended to Asia when the Chicago Defender assigned her to report from Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson’s administration was eager for favorable coverage of the US war effort, and the military tried to ensure it, with stage-managed photo ops at army installations and US-controlled villages. Payne’s editor was interested only in stories about how black soldiers were faring, not in critical reports about the war. She dutifully complied, never questioning the US presence or policies, unlike other correspondents such as Bernard Fall or Frances Fitzgerald. She later regretted her role, candidly acknowledging that “I didn’t do what I felt was an adequate job in reporting on the immorality of the war.”

Ethel Payne died in 1991 of a heart attack in her Washington, DC apartment, a few months shy of her 80th birthday. The white press, which largely had ignored her during her lifetime, reported her passing; the Washington Post ran an editorial that praised her and her accomplishments. At her funeral, a speaker commented, “She used her skills not to acquire power for herself but to activate power in others.”

Two years after her death, the National Association of Black Journalists launched the Ethel L. Payne Fellowship to fund reporting in Africa. The US Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp in 2002. Payne’s legacy, however, has not been well preserved. The fellowship couldn’t continue to raise funds and it folded; the stamp is no longer in circulation; her papers are scattered among various libraries and museums. “As is true of much of the civil rights struggle, much is forgotten,” Morris writes. Payne saw this coming. A decade before she died, in a speech to a Nashville church, she said, “Ours was a generation which spanned the time when black bodies were on the line, and as we struggled to send our children to college, we forgot to tell them about our past.”

But with Eye on the Struggle, Ethel Payne at last has gotten the biography she deserves.

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