Ethel Payne, dubbed the First Lady of the Black Press
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of two milestones in the civil rights movement—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—the name of Ethel Payne has remained largely unspoken. A pioneering African American journalist, Payne reported extensively on the movement in which she herself was firmly embedded. Yet, because she wrote for the Black Press, her seminal contribution has been overlooked by many civil rights historians, who have obtained their version of history largely from the coverage of the mainstream white media of the time.
In Eye on the Struggle (Amistad/HarperCollins; Feb. 17, 2015; $25.99), acclaimed biographer James McGrath Morris for the first time tells the complete story of the woman dubbed the First Lady of the Black Press—a story inextricably linked to the dark history of segregation and the grassroots struggle to end it. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Black Press operated in a different, parallel sphere from the white press. The latter generally portrayed civil rights legislation as a munificent gift bestowed on African Americans. But Payne, writing for the Chicago Defender, one of the nation’s premier Black papers, saw through the rhetoric and reported on the failures of the legislation to grant her people the equal rights that were their due. By viewing the civil rights era through her eyes, we gain a fresh perspective of the frustrations and compromises that marked the years of struggle, and better understand the discontent among African Americans.
The struggle for civil rights is only part of Ethel Payne’s remarkable story. The granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of a Pullman porter, Payne grew up in the thriving Black community of a deeply segregated Chicago in the first half of the 20th century. The fifth child in a large family that placed a great emphasis on education, young Ethel dreamed of being a novelist. Her father’s death when she was 14 placed a great strain on family finances, which were further affected as the Depression took hold.
Never an ardent student, Ethel set aside greater ambitions and became a librarian. But interest in community politics inspired her participation in the 1940s March on Washington Movement led by A. Philip Randolph, and her adventurous spirit led her to a stint in Japan working as a service club director for the military. While there, her keen observations of racial issues among the occupation forces led to her first publication in the Defender, and when she returned home to Chicago she parlayed her talents into the job as the paper’s Washington correspondent.
In the nation’s capital she became one of only three accredited African Americans in the White House press corps, where she made national headlines by rankling President Eisenhower with her questions about his desegregation policy.
Ethel Payne’s storied career took her to many places on the front lines of history, including Montgomery, where the unprecedented bus boycott launched the new Black leadership of 27-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. When LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, he invited Payne to be one of the observers in the East Room, presenting her with one of the signing pens as well as one a year later when he signed the Voting Rights Act.
She travelled to Indonesia to report on the ground-breaking conference between African and Asian leaders and accompanied Vice President Richard Nixon to Ghana (A lifelong Democrat, Payne nonetheless recognized that the future Republican president often espoused more advanced views on civil rights issues during the 1950s than his Democratic colleagues).
After leaving journalism for nine years, she returned with a special assignment from the Defender—three months in Vietnam to assess how the war was viewed by Black troops. She would go on to cover the Nigerian Civil War, visit China as one of the first American journalists allowed in after Nixon’s visit, and become the first African American woman radio and television commentator on a national network.
Drawing on a rich and untapped trove of material—including Payne’s personal papers, oral histories, FBI documents, and Payne’s own newspaper writings themselves, Eye on the Struggle is the first book to give the full measure of this extraordinary woman’s life and work.
“Ethel Payne was a pioneer who experienced the challenges but little of the glory that comes with the title,” says Paula J. Giddings, author of Ida, A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching. “With this book, her legacy is assured.”