1950s to 60s - Ethel L. Payne
One night in 1947, police arrested two dozen black men outside a bar in Ethel L. Payne’s Chicago neighborhood. When Payne tried to get more details about the arrests, the police were dismissive, telling her the matter didn’t concern her. “This is not Mississippi or Alabama,” she shot back. At some point, an officer hit her and hauled her off to the paddy wagon. At the police station, the captain, perhaps realizing they had messed with the wrong woman, backpedaled and told her to go home. She refused. Not only did she insist on being booked, but she demanded that the two dozen arrested men be released. She got her way, and when the case eventually hit a judge’s desk, it was dismissed. It was that same perseverance and moral integrity that would later earn her the moniker “First Lady of the Black Press.”
Payne’s heyday was the 1950s and the civil rights era of the 1960s. She was known for asking tough questions and believed that objectivity in news was a farce. Instead she was committed to fairness. In one notable moment in 1954, she enraged President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a press conference. Her biographer, James McGrath Morris, described her in the Washington Post as nervously asking the question that would shift the national agenda on segregated interstate travel:
“Mr. President,” she began in her deep voice when Eisenhower called on her, “we were very happy last week when the deputy attorney general sent a communication to the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee saying that there was a legal basis for passing a law to ban segregation in interstate travel. … I would like to know if we could assume that we have administration support in getting action on this?”
Eisenhower was livid. “You say that you have to have administrative support,” he snapped. “The administration is trying to do what it thinks and believes to be decent and just in this country, and is not in the effort to support any particular or special group of any kind.” His response made national headlines. The president had just called blacks’ fight for equality a special interest. As one of only three accredited blacks in the White House press corps, Payne had often been called on by the president, but after that incident, he refused.
Ethel Payne got into journalism by accident. The granddaughter of slaves, she was born on April 4, 1911, in Chicago, the fifth of six children. Her father, a Pullman porter, died when she was just a teenager. She had “a big personality and grit,” according to the New York Times. In 1948, she was working in Japan as a hostess for a military social club when she allowed a Chicago Defender reporter to read her journal and take it back to Chicago. An article based on the race relations she’d observed in her journal made the front page of the Defender. And thus her storied journalism career began. When she came back to the States, she took night classes at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism while working in the field.
The Defender, although a local weekly, was the premier black newspaper in the country in the early 21st century. By 1920, the paper had 130,000 subscribers, but it reached far more. Blacks feared having the paper sent to their homes, since it was banned in many southern towns. Editors would drop off copies to Pullman porters who would deliver the paper to barbershops and churches along their southern routes, according to the Times. “The Defender’s national readership was considered so threatening to racial order,” Morris writes in his biography of Payne, Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, “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.”
But the Defender was where Payne became one of the preeminent reporters of the civil rights movement. Not long after the Defender reporter’s trip to Japan, Payne was hired by the paper and assigned national stories that allowed her to travel both throughout the States and internationally. Her travels to the South meant that she, along with other black journalists, had to find private homes to lodge in, because they weren’t allowed to stay in hotels. The racism she faced not only made her job more difficult but put her in potentially dangerous situations.
Morris described her as being light-years ahead of her white colleagues, citing Payne’s awareness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when few had heard of him. She wrote of King, “This gladiator going into battle wears a reverse collar, a flowing robe, and carries a Bible in his hand.”
A couple of years after joining the Defender, she became its Washington correspondent, which allowed her to question and take Presidents Nixon, Eisenhower, and Kennedy to task over civil rights issues. Her advocacy journalism was rooted in the idea that civil rights in the States were inextricably linked to human rights abroad. She became the first black reporter to cover the Vietnam War. She reported from Nigeria on the civil war there and was one of the first journalists to visit China after Nixon’s 1972 trip.
On her ten-nation reporting tour, she joined writer Richard Wright and Baptist minister turned civil rights activist Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Bandung, Indonesia, for the Bandung Conference, the first large-scale summit of Asian and African states. She accompanied President Richard Nixon to Ghana, witnessing his first meeting with King. The Defender was mostly interested in black troops in Vietnam when it sent her to cover the war in 1966, and she later expressed guilt for not being more critical of the war itself.
She spent more than 20 years with the Defender, covering the issues pertinent to black communities without the bias and oftentimes straight-up racist coverage found in mainstream media. In 1972, she became the first black woman hired by a national network, as a radio and TV commentator for CBS’s Spectrum (1972–1978) and, later, Matters of Opinion (1982).
Payne never married or had children. People who knew her said she was fun to be around. Instead of the traditional familial pursuits expected of women of her time, she devoted her life to advocacy journalism and friends. Her D.C. dinner party invitations were said to be highly coveted.
Aside from being honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 2002, along with three other female journalists, Payne’s contributions to journalism have mostly forgotten outside of Morris’ biography, for no other reason than that she was a black woman reporting for the black press. “Had Ethel Payne not been black,” the Washington Post noted in an editorial on her death in 1991, “she certainly would have been one of the most recognized journalists in American society.”
Ethel Payne was the embodiment of the powerful fusion of activism and journalism. “I stick to my firm, unshakeable belief that the black press is an advocacy press,” she once said, “and that I, as a part of that press, can’t afford the luxury of being unbiased … when it comes to issues that really affect my people, and I plead guilty, because I think that I am an instrument of change.”