“Tell the truth, and duck” is advice Les Payne often gave to young journalists, and the admonition was repeated by his son, Haile, during the reading of Payne’s obituary Tuesday morning at Abyssinian Baptist Church. Although Payne, 76, who died of a heart attack March 19, was an unwavering proponent of the truth, it’s hard to believe he ever ducked, especially if you consider the many times the word “fearlessness” was mentioned of him at the services during the acknowledgments and remarks.
None of the several speakers, including Raymond Johnson, Dele Ologede, John Mancini and Joe Davidson, emphasized this truth-teller aspect with such passion and power as Randy Daniels. Daniels, who told the packed sanctuary that he had known Payne for 40 years, said he had “the intellect of Du Bois [W.E.B.], the fearlessness of Malcolm X and the physical presence of Sonny Liston.” He added, “You could not have a better friend. He was a good and decent man. He lived an exemplary life.”
The Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts III, the church’s pastor who officiated the funeral, echoed Daniels’ comments about Payne’s ability to speak truth to power. “He was a truth-teller,” he said. “I think in searching, Les found the truth, and God took him…and left you a legacy that you can be proud of.”
Few in attendance expressed that proudness as eloquently as Payne’s son, Jamal, who brought the crowd to its feet minutes before Daniels’ rousing speech. Jamal said his father was the first superhero he knew. “I do not want my father to become a caricature of himself, an angry Black journalist. Yes, my dad is Black, unapologetically Black, and yes, he wrote that column that made many uneasy. But he was not angry.”
Then in a series of exhortations, Jamal recalled his father as a five-tool journalist: “Writer, reporter, investigative reporter, editor, manager. I lost my favorite superhero last Monday.”
And so did the world of journalism and readers seeking truth-tellers, and as one of the church’s deacons cited, quoting from the New Testament, Payne “fought the good fight…finished the race and kept the faith.”
It took two pages in the program to capture some of the highlights of Payne’s illustrious life, a life of adventure from South Africa to Turkey, a life of commendation and awards. The American flag draped over his coffin was emblematic of his six years of military service and recalling his days composing press releases for General William Westmoreland during his command in Vietnam.
One of the most enlightening paragraphs in the obituary offered tidbits of the headline stories that Payne either authored or were published under his editorial jurisdiction, including the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panther Party and the Symbionese Liberation Army. “His international reporting included extensive coverage of Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and the United Nations,” the obituary noted. “In 1974, Les won a Pulitzer Prize for ‘The Heroin Trail,’ a series that traced the international flow of heroin from the poppy fields of Turkey to the veins of drug addicts in New York City.”
The obituary continued, “In 1976, he traveled throughout South Africa to write a series of essays on the Soweto uprising; in 1978 this series was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in foreign reporting.” This decision would be the source of some controversy when the board of the Prize overruled a selection panel. Among his other awards was induction into the NABJ Hall of Fame and the James Aronson Award for lifetime achievement.
But winning prizes, as many of his colleagues knew, was not the deepest concern for the indomitable reporter/editor, and it is hoped that his children continue in their pursuit to give the world a fuller understanding of his life and legacy. “That is a project that we have been working on for several years,” Jamal told a reporter. And their dedication, like their father’s, is endless, suggesting again that the fruit never falls that far from the tree. From their work we gather a better notion of Payne the teacher and the author, and possibly the completion of his biography of Malcolm X.
Along with his wife, Violet, with whom he hosted many an intellectual and cultural gathering at their home, Payne leaves to mourn his passing his children, Jamal, Haile and Tamara; four siblings—brothers John Payne, Joseph Payne and Raymond Johnson, and sister Mary Ann Glass; and a brigade of friends and loved ones.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in the name of Les Payne to either or both: the Les Payne Scholarship Fund at the National Association of Black Journalists, of which he was a founder (please visit https://nabj.site-ym.com/donations/donate.asp?id=16940), or to the AbyWest campaign. Please make checks payable to Abyssinian Baptist Church with AbyWest Project-Les Payne written in the memo.