March 2015

Vanessa Willoughby


Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press by James McGrath Morris

In Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, James McGrath Morris recounts the rich journalistic legacy and admirable integrity of Ethel Payne, the aptly dubbed First Lady of the Black Press. Morris's thorough research skills produce a factually dense yet riveting biography of an altruistic and ambitious writer turned renowned journalist who fully integrated herself into the political theater of Washington's elite. Morris consciously chooses to keep the narrative focus on Payne's wealth of professional milestones and achievements, utilizing her private correspondence with friends, family, and close colleagues, in addition to FBI documents and her newspaper work. Through the emphasis on this material, Morris substantiates Ethel Payne's underappreciated role as a prominent civil rights activist.

Morris divides the book into three sections: Payne's Chicago-based childhood and adolescence, her experience as a fledgling reporter at the Chicago Defender, followed by the zenith of her career's influence and her years as a freelance writer representing one of the few remaining figureheads of the old black press guard. Living just outside Chicago's "Black Belt," Payne was the granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of a Pullman porter. Education and the quest for self-improvement were highly valued in the Payne household. Bessie Payne, the family matriarch, also emphasized the importance of routine, keeping the house on a tight schedule that included Sundays reserved for church services. When Payne's father suddenly died from complications of a bacterial infection, she was devastated. When she graduated high school in the fall of 1929, Payne set aside grandiose plans for the practicality of steady employment. Before securing a position as a Chicago librarian, Payne engaged in social work for the State Training School for Girls. Her involvement with the March on Washington Movement marked her place in the world of Chicago activism.

Payne's interest in the struggle for civil rights inspired her to get a job as an Army service club hostess. The stint in Japan allowed Payne to immerse herself in an unknown culture and report on the conditions of black soldiers. She tested out her reporting skills on a larger audience than she'd anticipated. Payne became deeply interested not only in the lives of the black servicemen and their everyday conditions but their ostracized offspring, the cast-off and condemned racially mixed babies of black soldiers and Japanese women. This later proved highly controversial and a threat to her incipient career. Payne was quoted in an article for the Defender, which ran under the rather blunt headline WHY TAN YANKS GO FOR JAPANESE GIRLS. Payne's words, which were a compilation of her serialized diary entries, incited a heated internal investigation. Fortunately, Payne had friends in high places. Help came in the form of Thurgood Marshall.

Following the completion of her post as an Army club hostess, Payne found employment with the Chicago Defender and quickly worked her way to its front page. Her ambition and genuine concern for the inner-workings of peoples' lives, propelled her to a higher level of editorial freedom. In 1952, Payne's three-part series profiling the nation's Pullman porters caught the attention of the Newspaper Guild. However, her series chronicling the bleak reality of black orphans, who seemed to be just as unwanted as the abandoned babies she encountered in Japan, cemented her journalistic voice. Two years later, she set up camp in Washington after having fiercely negotiated for the position with her hot-and-cold publisher. Payne didn't waste time adjusting to her new surroundings before diving into the new position. At a time when the White House had only given out official press credentials to two other black reporters, Payne's sudden inclusion was a major decision that carried political consequences for both parties. During a press conference, she asked an irritated President Eisenhower about a racially charged incident involving Howard University's choir and the District police. Her persistence earned her the reputation of "the most feared Negro journalist in Washington."

Payne was unapologetic about her activism. She thought that civil rights issues were not given nearly enough attention and was rightfully impatient with the lack of government response or sense of urgency. She regarded her role as a reporter not as a passive observer silently recording her subjects, but a direct pipeline to black Americans, adamant that the issues that faced black citizens not be ignored. She refused to give up on getting Eisenhower to publicly commit to his stance on civil rights issues and the Jim Crow terrors of the South. Reflecting on this time period in her life and the aggressive tone of her writing, Payne said, "If you have lived through the black experience in this country, you feel that every day you're assaulted by the system itself... I saw myself as an advocate as much as being a newspaper person."

Payne's relocation to Washington proved fruitful, opening doors to new opportunities and new countries, including Indonesia, Ghana, China, and South Africa. She reported on the murder of Emmett Till and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks. After Martin Luther King, Jr. was tried in 1956 with ninety other protestors, she interviewed him about the movement and its direction. The illuminating conversation ignited Payne's sense of purpose. While white news outlets were soft on their reports concerning civil rights and discrimination, Payne reprimanded Washington for believing that the black Americans should be content with the slow-to-deliver scraps of equality.

Even when unforeseen setbacks and hardships occurred, such as the abrupt closure of the Washington branch of the Defender, Payne persevered. Her widespread connections helped ease some of the rougher patches in her career, providing writing gigs, financial assistance, moral support, and professional recommendations. This is not to say that her life as a reporter was free of sexism or racial discrimination. Due to her hands-on approach with the Civil Rights Movement, there were times when Payne became a target for angry pro-segregationists who issued very earnest death threats. Her refusal to stand by and remain silent about civil rights injustices and white supremacy put her safety in danger again and again. Her reporting duties even took her to the frontlines of Vietnam, making her the first black reporter to cover the war.

There's much to admire about Ethel Payne and her skills as a reporter, even if she later confessed to regrets about the handling of certain stories. Her empathy combined with her reporter's stalwart sense of duty to the truth carved out her place in journalism history. One cannot help but marvel at Payne's victories against the brutal odds. Although her efforts were prominently recognized towards the end of her life, Payne should not be regarded as a dusty relic of a bygone era. The power she wielded within the press showcases the ever-timely importance of providing public platforms for the underrepresented, minorities stripped of their voices or without proper representation. Payne may not have always been completely objective and her personal morals may sometimes have read as transparent, but she gave her life to her work. She was not just a messenger but an ally. Some readers may think that Morris, a white male, is an unlikely biographer for Payne, but it should be noted that the project could not have been completed or so detailed without the willingness of her family. Even if Morris tends to end chapters with a cinematic tone of foreboding or engage in purple prose, Payne's globe-hopping travels and brushes with major national and international leaders make for an enticing, aspirational, enigmatic read.

Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press by James McGrath Morris
ISBN: 978-0062198853
480 pages