Cover image for Eye on the struggle : Ethel Payne, the first lady of the Black Press
Eye on the struggle : Ethel Payne, the first lady of the Black Press
First edition.
Physical Description:
x, 466 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Personal Subject:
Acclaimed biographer James McGrath Morris brings into focus the riveting life of pioneering journalist Ethel Payne, known as The First Lady of the Black Press. For decades, Ethel Lois Payne has been hidden in the shadows of history. Now, Morris skillfully illuminates the life of this ambitious, influential, and groundbreaking woman, from her childhood growing up in South Chicago to her career as a journalist and network news commentator, reporting on some of the most crucial events in modern American history.


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Book 921 PAYNE 1 1
Book 921 PAYNE 1 1
Book 921 PAYNE 1 1

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Acclaimed biographer James McGrath Morris brings into focus the riveting life of one of the most significant yet least known figures of the civil rights era--pioneering journalist Ethel Payne, the "First Lady of the Black Press"--elevating her to her rightful place in history at last.

For decades, Ethel Lois Payne has been hidden in the shadows of history. Now, James McGrath Morris skillfully illuminates this ambitious, influential, and groundbreaking woman's life, from her childhood growing up in South Chicago to her career as a journalist and network news commentator, reporting on some of the most crucial events in modern American history.

Morris draws on a rich and untapped collection of Payne's personal papers documenting her private and professional affairs. He combed through oral histories, FBI documents, and newspapers to fully capture Payne's life, her achievements, and her legacy. He introduces us to a journalist who covered such events as the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Little Rock school desegregation crisis, the service of black troops in Vietnam, and Henry Kissinger's 26,000-mile tour of Africa.

A self-proclaimed "instrument of change" for her people, Payne broke new ground as the Washington correspondent for the Chicago Defender. She publicly prodded President Dwight D. Eisenhower to support desegregation, and her reporting on legislative and judicial civil rights battles enlightened and activated black readers across the nation. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized Payne's seminal role by presenting her with a pen used in signing the Civil Rights Act. In 1972, she became the first female African American radio and television commentator on a national network, working for CBS. Her story mirrors the evolution of our own modern society.

Inspiring and instructive, moving and comprehensive, Eye on the Struggle illuminates this extraordinary woman and her achievements, and reminds us of the power one person has to transform our lives and our world.

With 16 pages of black-and-white photos.

Reviews 4

Kirkus Review

Biographer Morris (Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power, 2010, etc.) resurrects the career of Ethel Payne (1911-1991), journalist, labor union and civil rights advocate, traveler on the African continent, journalism professor and pioneer in the American race wars.Struggling to obtain a formal education during an era when women, especially African-American women, found most schooling off-limits, Payne did not find her calling as a journalist until she was nearly 40. Before that, she labored in a Chicago library and found employment in Japan helping African-American military personnel stationed by the Pentagon adjust to life abroad. All along, she wanted to become a writer. Growing up in Chicago, Payne was aware of the Chicago Defender, the most prominent newspaper in the country owned by an African-American and devoted to writing about them from a perspective radically different from that of the Caucasian-owned media. While working in Japan in 1950, Payne met a Defender reporter who had served the United States during World War II and at the time was writing about the role of African-American soldiers in the Korean War. Payne, an impressive individual by any standard, parlayed the acquaintanceship into a salaried job. During a journalism career that began at the Defender and resumed there after a hiatus caused by the newspaper's sometimes-mercurial publisher, Payne wrote about U.S. presidents, African nations, the Vietnam War and her hometown of Chicago. Due to her gender and race, Payne always stood out at presidential press conferences and just about everywhere else, but she rarely flinched from any obstacles that stood in the way of the story. Morris does not flinch from his status as a white male chronicling the life of an African-American female, and he discloses that he received unstinting support from Payne's family members and acquaintances. His access allows him to reveal intriguing subtleties about her work and her personal life. A deeply researched, skillfully written biography about a previously underappreciated individual. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Morris (Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power, 2010) is the first to tell barrier-breaking journalist Ethel Payne's (1911-91) complete story in Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press. Among this biography's many disclosures is the crucial role this book-loving daughter of a Pullman porter and constant patron of her South Side Chicago public library branch played in the success of the Chicago Defender, a tremendously influential African American newspaper distributed in the Jim Crow South by Pullman porters. Harassed on her way to high school when she passed through a white neighborhood, Payne was encouraged to write by her English teacher, who had also taught Ernest Hemingway. Payne had stories published in a Defender spinoff, Abbott's Monthly, while she attended the Chicago Public Library Training School and became a junior library assistant. After qualifying for a government-documents librarian post at the U.S. Department of Justice, she was turned away because of her race. In a neat turnaround, Payne signed on as an assistant service club director, shipping out to an army post in Japan in 1948. There, intrepid, ever-curious, and truth-seeking, Payne investigated the plight of the stigmatized children of black GIs and Japanese women. She lost her military job when the Chicago Defender published her exposé but was hired by the paper. Thanks to Alice Dunnigan's mentoring, Payne established a presence in Washington, D.C., quickly ascending as the Defender's unquestioned star political reporter . . . and civil rights authority, until the paper abruptly closed its Washington office in 1958. After stints with the AFL-CIO and the Democratic National Committee, Payne returned to journalism as the first African American correspondent covering the Vietnam War and the first African American reporter invited to China. Morris' straight-ahead chronicle of Payne's extraordinary front-line life reveals how invincible and incisive she was as she forthrightly combined journalism with advocacy and made the most of the box seat on history she fought so ardently and courageously to occupy.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2015 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

IN OUR UNCERTAIN news media landscape, the black press is not what it used to be. At their height during the Great Migration decades between 1915 and 1970, dozens of weeklies - including The New York Amsterdam News, The Pittsburgh Courier and The Los Angeles Sentinel - reported the news of black America. The Chicago Defender, unofficial organ of the migration, had a national circulation of 130,000. Everything that was fit to print, from the latest racial pogroms to Negro League baseball box scores, filled its pages, giving voice to the voiceless along the color line of American political and social life. In 2000, Vernon Jarrett, a longtime Chicago Defender reporter and a syndicated columnist at The Chicago Tribune, described black newspapers as "the most predominant media influence on black people.... They were our Internet." Next to preachers, politicians, postal workers and Pullman porters, men of Jarrett's profession and generation are well remembered for being esteemed members of black communities. And yet, the nearly forgotten Ethel Payne was, by any measure, their match. Few journalists of any race, especially among women of her time, could match her longevity and reach across seven occupants of the White House and several continents. Payne was one of two women journalists to visit Red China in January 1973. Susan Sontag, then a contributing editor at Ms. magazine, was the other. Payne's was an unlikely journey, according to James McGrath Morris, whose previous books include a biography of Joseph Pulitzer. A native daughter of Chicago's South Side, she was born in 1911, into a world of striving newcomers. Her Tennessean father left the terrors of share-cropping and lynch mobs before the war to become a Pullman porter. Her mother was from steel country in nearby Gary, Ind., where residents processed the raw materials that black convicts extracted from the coal mines of Tennessee and Alabama. Her parents were among Chicago's early black homeowners before the redlining began. The fifth of six children, Ethel came of age as Chicago's "Black Belt" tightened its grip on the lives of African-Americans, hemmed in by white gangs, restrictive covenants and abusive police officers. Morris has written a fast-paced, engrossing biography, weaving the details of Payne's personal and infinitely intriguing professional life against the backdrop of 20th-century race relations, the civil rights movement and Cold War anticolonialism. At the age of 20, she had the audacity to ask W.E.B. Du Bois if she could write his official biography. What she lacked in "experience," she told him, she made up in "nerve." ("If Du Bois replied," Morris writes, "the letter was lost to history.") During the Great Depression and early days of World War II, she worked as a city librarian, a job she found deadly boring but better than the prospect of cleaning white folks' homes. "A professional black woman was as rare in the Windy City as a warm day in winter," Morris notes. What wasn't so rare, however, was the network of black women deeply enmeshed in local racial justice work. By her late 20s and early 30s, Payne was fighting housing segregation and defense industry discrimination with the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. When A. Philip Randolph, the founding president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters - the most powerful black union in the country - reached out for local support for the emerging March on Washington Movement, Payne answered the call. This was the opening salvo of the civil rights movement, and she was right smack in the middle of it. The organizers pressured Franklin Roosevelt to desegregate defense industries by executive order or face the embarrassment of 100,000 Negroes protesting American racism on the National Mall while Hitler's racist army conquered Europe. The strategy worked. Yet Payne learned quickly how little respect many of the men, Randolph included, had for women like her. "Too many bossy dames around here," one male organizer complained. Payne told Randolph he himself had better "straighten up and fly right." Payne never lost her connection to the labor movement or political organizing. A half-century before the Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Payne was a lead organizer for the Democratic National Committee's black voter initiatives. Her job as deputy field director in 1962 was to convince black women that their husbands should no longer do all the "voting in their family." Payne was an activist who became a journalist. The Chicago Defender hired her in 1951, and in 1953 she was promoted from a reporter of local feature stories to the position of Washington correspondent. In the nation's capital, she became only the third black journalist, behind Louis Lautier and Alice Dunnigan, to join the White House press corps, arriving just in time to cover President Eisenhower's descent into civil rights hell. Unsurprisingly, Payne established herself in a sea of white male reporters as a vocal and deft interlocutor of presidential news conferences. Ike liked her at first; she seemed safe and unassuming. She was, as Morris puts it, "the White House's favorite Negro reporter." That didn't last long. Over and over again, she put Eisenhower on the spot. "You said then that you would have an answer later for this," she once told him in regard to housing policies. "May I cite to you the situation at Levittown in Pennsylvania as an example where members of minority groups are being barred." At the same time that civil rights were taking off at home, the darker races of the world decided they had endured enough of colonialism. African and Asian leaders gathered in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955. No white Americans or Europeans allowed. Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York called the trip "a pilgrimage to a new Mecca," and Payne was one of the reporters to cover the event. For years following, the C.I.A. and State Department kept track of Payne's international travels, sometimes even sponsoring her, as Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon did in 1957 in support of Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah and his newly independent Ghana. Similarly, two decades later, under President Ford, Henry Kissinger invited Payne on a 26,000-mile tour of Africa. He knew her as a national correspondent on CBS radio and television. She was the first black woman to hold such a position on a national network. Payne had also traveled three years before under Kissinger's watchful eye on the 1973 China tour, sponsored by the China-American Relations Society. "You can't help but be impressed," she wrote to her family of the trip. "There are so many things our American system could take note of." Her high-profile international work in the midst of the Cold War earned her an F.B.I. file the same year. On the "deseg beat" she kept an eye on the struggle, covering Brown v. Board of Education, Emmett Till, Montgomery, Little Rock, Birmingham and Selma ("I'll never forget the faces, the contorted faces of housewives, standing out and screaming like they were just lunatics from the asylum, you know, just screaming such terrible epithets and hatred- 'Nigger, nigger, nigger' and 'Go to hell!'"). For her reporting, President Johnson presented her with two signing pens from the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Until she died in 1991, she chronicled everything from Shirley Chisholm's and Jesse Jackson's presidential runs to the Reagan White House and the war on crime. Morris's fine biography shows that through Ethel Payne's life, the black press helped change America and the world. "I could not divorce myself from the heart of the problem, because I was part of the problem." Today's social media activists walk in the first lady's footsteps. KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD is the director of the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the author of "The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America."

Library Journal Review

A biography of Ethel Payne, who broke new ground as the Washington correspondent for the Chicago Defender during the 1950s and 1960s and later became the first black female commentator on a national radio and television network. (c) Copyright 2014. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.