If I were wise when considering a profile of Ethel L. Payne, the pioneering journalist, for the “Classroom” column, I would relinquish the page to James McGrath Morris and reprint the entire article he did on her recently in the Washington Post. And the article there is just a teaser from the brilliant biography he has published on her remarkable life.
Payne, Morris notes in his article, was the “granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of a Pullman porter” who “rose to become the nation’s preeminent Black female reporter of the civil rights era, chronicling the movement’s seminal moments for a national Black readership hungry for stories that could not be found in the white media. From publicly challengingly President [Dwight] Eisenhower’s commitment to desegregation in the 1950s to capturing the lives of Black troops in Vietnam in the 1960s, she became known simply as ‘the First Lady of Black Press.’”
Born Ethel Lois Payne Aug. 14, 1911, she was the fifth or six child living in a strong, loving household in Chicago, where her writing skills were cultivated at an early age by her mother, a Latin teacher. There were also evening lessons in the Bible, where she and her siblings challenged each other in reciting chapter and verse. Payne’s first dream was to be civil rights lawyer, but she was not accepted into law school, so she chose the next best thing.
Before settling into a journalism career, she attended Crane Junior College, Garrett Institute, and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Even so, there were several other stops before she arrived at the renowned Chicago Defender. In 1948, she was director of an Army club in Tokyo, where her journalism talents were discovered. “She had been keeping a journal about her observations during her stay in Japan. After a Chicago Defender reporter visited her, she gave him permission to take the journal back to Chicago. Known for voicing issues in the Black community that were not explored by white papers, the Defender ran excerpts of Payne’s diary on its front page. Though the excerpts of her diary, which told stories of Black troops stationed in Japan, did not sit well with the United States military, her reports led to a job offer with the Defender,” according to a website devoted to her life.
In 1951, as a reporter for the Defender, Payne joined the ranks of famous writers, including Willard Motley, Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes, whose bylines also appeared in the paper. Payne also completed her degree from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University after accepting the position with the Defender. Within weeks, she was covering investigative stories.
Given the thoroughness and insight of her stories, she was soon sent to the capital to act as the paper’s Washington, D.C., bureau correspondent. The Civil Rights Movement was just beginning to gather full steam, and Payne was strategically placed to chronicle historic, national events and measures that arose in and around Capitol Hill. “Among the first incidents to gain national attention for Payne was an encounter with Dwight D. Eisenhower at a press conference in 1954. Following the Interstate Commerce Commission’s decision to end segregation practices on interstate highways, Payne asked Eisenhower about his plans to initiate the commission’s decision. Eisenhower met her question with a degree of animosity, and informed her that his intent was to be fair, but he would not cater to special interest,” her website reported. This was the beginning of an acrimonious relationship between her and the president.
By asking questions pertinent to African-Americans, Payne was viewed as a thorn in the side to the white power structure and elected officials, though she was sometimes envied by the few other Black reporters. Seemingly never mindful of either camp, she followed her intuition to get the story to empower her readers.
During her stint at the Defender, she was often deployed to the hot spots in the South to cover the Civil Rights Movement, including the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott and the turmoil in Birmingham. Her coverage of the “March on Washington” in 1963 was widely acclaimed and provided her with the national recognition that pushed her to the next level of international assignments.
According to Journalism Quarterly, she became the “first African-American woman to focus on international news coverage.” In the mid-1950s, she was indispensable to the Defender, and her stories were eagerly awaited by the paper’s subscribers. Most momentous was her coverage of the Asian-African Conference in Bandung in 1955 and Ghana’s independence movement and independence in 1957.
Payne’s “big break” in international coverage came in 1966, when she was assigned to cover the African-American troops fighting in the Vietnam War. According to Journalism Quarterly, “During the three months that Payne reported from Vietnam, she went into the field, observed the school where soldiers learned guerrilla warfare, investigated American military supplies being sold on the black market and saw first hand the effects of the chemical agent orange by witnessing the death of a Vietnamese woman.” As ever, Payne tended to go beyond the “basic elements of journalism and exploring venues untouched by others.”
From the conflict in Vietnam, Payne traveled to Africa to report on the Nigerian civil war and the International Women’s Year Conference in Mexico City. She also traveled to Africa on separate occasions with secretaries of state William P. Rogers and Henry Kissinger.
In 1972, according to one website, Payne entered the world of commentary and debuted as the first African-American woman radio and television commentator to be employed by a national network. While still employed as writer for the Defender, Payne was offered a job with CBS’s “Spectrum.” Three times a week, she created two-and-a-half minute commentaries that were heard via radio the first year and seen via television in the following years. After six years with “Spectrum,” Payne moved on to “Matters of Opinion,” a radio program that aired on WBBM, a CBS affiliate. She stayed with “Matters of Opinion” until 1982. In her commentaries, Payne continued her commitment to discuss topics that were important to the African-American community.
Her continued success and ever-expanding reputation led to an associate editor position with the Defender in 1972, but her heart drew her back to Washington and international news. In 1978, Payne left the Defender after 28 years to begin a freelance career. She began a syndicated column that ran in six Black newspapers across the country.
Despite her accomplishments, Payne was slighted in 1987 while attending a Black Caucus dinner. “Representing the Black Media Services organization, she and fellow journalist Alfreda L. Madison arrived at the dinner with the understanding that tickets would be available. According to a Washington Post article, two security guards confronted the women, who sat in the dining room after a long wait for tickets. The guards told Payne, who was in her 70s, and Madison that without tickets, they had to leave their seats or they would be arrested. Caucus representatives said that the security guards must not have known who Payne and Madison were, but there was outrage for the display against two women who had opened doors for many African-Americans in journalism,” it was reported.
Nonetheless, her outstanding journalism was not neglected, and she amassed a roomful of awards and citations, including being named Fisk University’s first recipient of Ida B. Wells Distinguished Journalism Chair in 1973 and a “Woman of Action” in 1980 for her achievements in journalism, presented to her by the National Association of Negro Business. She also received a Kappa Tau Alpha award, which was presented to her at Hampton University in Hampton, Va., in 1990, and the Candace Award of the Coalition of 100 Women, which she received in 1988.
A few months shy of her 90th birthday, Payne died May 28, 1991. But down to her final breath, Payne was continually sought out as a speaker. Throughout her career, Payne shook up the world of journalism and gave it a new look. Her writings and commentaries touched many, and whether she reached them positively or negatively, she would not be forgotten by anyone whose path she crossed. These points are dutifully underscored by Morris in his biography. He also passionately illustrates Payne’s involvement in Little Rock with Daisy Bates, with Dr. King on various civil rights battlefields and her meeting with Nelson Mandela.
Her story, Morris relates, “is a story inextricably linked to the dark history of segregation and the grassroots struggle to end it. It is also a deeply personal tale of a woman who discovered her calling late in life and summoned the strength to confront the powerful, defy journalistic conventions and forsake marriage and children for a larger cause.”