Information about heroines of the Civil Rights Movement seems to come in dribs and drabs and can be pretty hard to find. Fortunately, James McGrath Morris’s new biography Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, does a wonderful job of telling us who Ethel Payne was and why she was so important. Ms. Payne was an activist and a pioneering journalist for more than fifty years. She covered the Civil Rights movement in the South and was The Chicago Defender’s first Washington correspondent. She was also among the very first black women journalists to appear on television. She knew and followed virtually all of the Civil Rights leaders and American presidents of her time. At times, her consistent presence at so many of the seminal events of the twentieth century had a kind of Zelig or Forrest Gump-like quality, but that characterization really isn’t fair, because time after time she deliberately inserted herself into the action.
Ethel Payne embraced her self-imposed responsibility to make the country and its leaders aware of the Civil Rights movement and then to keep reminding them of their responsibilities. At a time when Jim Crow was rampant, she accompanied Harry Truman on a whistle-stop tour across the country. She was the first black woman reporter to attend presidential news conferences and then she repeatedly asked Dwight Eisenhower questions he didn’t want to answer about his administration’s poor showing on the Civil Rights front. She didn’t get good answers, but she knew that her colleagues would report the Q and A in the national press. She knew Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and was frequently infuriated and then sometimes heartened by their stances on race. She also traveled widely. In addition to numerous trips to Africa, she attended the Bandung conference, went to Vietnam as a reporter and interviewed Nelson Mandela not long after his release from prison. It was a remarkable career.
How did Ethel Payne accomplish so much? She never hesitated to take the initiative, she showed tremendous resilience as her career ebbed and flowed, she was a nice person who helped other people, and she was absolutely determined to promote the Civil Rights movement through her reporting. This last point begs an interesting ethical question. In her time, Ms. Payne apparently made the deliberate decision to promote the leaders of the Civil Rights movement through her reporting. She had a mission, and it didn’t include revealing the leaders’ warts and infighting. I squirmed at this deliberately selective approach to reporting, but in fairness, this reticence can be cast as a product of a time when presidents’ physical infirmities and sexual activities simply weren’t reported. Then again, we live in an era that maybe isn’t all that different.
I highly recommend this book. We all need to know about Ethel Payne and to make sure our children do as well.