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Black journalist Ethel Payne changed the national agenda with coverage of civil rights

February 26, 2015 at 6:15 PM EST
Ethel Payne, known as the "first lady of the black press," may be the most influential journalist and activist most people haven't heard of. She covered presidencies and Vietnam, traveled often to Africa and was on the front lines of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington. Author James McGrath Morris joins Gwen Ifill to discuss "Eye on the Struggle," a new biography of Payne.

GWEN IFILL: Now, as black history month draws to a close, a couple of stories.

First, we talk to the author of a new book about a black woman journalist who was nearly alone in her field.

She may be the most influential journalist and activist most people have never heard of. Ethel Payne began her writing career at The Chicago Defender, a storied black newspaper that specialized in telling stories left uncovered by the mainstream white-owned press.

Payne traveled the world, covered every president from Eisenhower to Reagan, traveled to Vietnam and repeatedly to Africa. She was front and center at the Montgomery bus boycott, at the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School and at the 1963 March on Washington.

Over time, she came to be known as the first lady of the black press. But her groundbreaking work has been obscured by time.

Biographer James McGrath Morris sets out to correct that in his new book, “Eye on the Struggle.”

Welcome.

This strikes me as one of those stories where how you tell it depends on the person whose story you’re telling. She was a storyteller, but Ethel Payne’s story was different.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS, Author, “Eye on the Struggle”: Ethel Payne’s story was very different.

And the thing that her not being known today is really a legacy of segregation, in that she was iconic to a large segment of the U.S. population, but, like most black institutions, The Chicago Defender was entirely invisible to white Americans.

And so she functioned in this world, was incredibly important in informing her readers and activating her readers, yet the rest of the nation marched along without knowing who she was.

GWEN IFILL: Well, you mentioned activating her readings — readers.

One of the things about the black press at that time that she was flourishing is that they were advocates for people who had moved north, many of them, because of the Great Migration. It was a different role.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Very different role.

But she also saw herself as having a different role. As a correspondent in Washington, merely getting from her apartment to the White House could be a problem because a cab might not pick her up, as an African-American. So the notion of discussing civil rights with the president of the United States, in that case of Eisenhower, she felt she was part of the — in her words, the problem, and she couldn’t pursue typical objective reporting.

Instead, she adopted a measure of being fair. It may seem like a small distinction, but it wasn’t. Her questions were ladened with an agenda.

GWEN IFILL: And how did these presidents and these powerful people react to her?

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Well, it depended.

(LAUGHTER)

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Eisenhower at first called on her repeatedly.

And, at this point, she was discovering that asking a question at a national press conference, having a seat at the table, if you wish, made a huge difference, because when she asked a question, it forced the mainstream, i.e., white media, to report on an issue, civil rights, that they were ignoring.

So Eisenhower took the questions, but, when they became difficult, he got very upset, and he froze her out of the — out of respond — he wouldn’t call on her anymore.

GWEN IFILL: And yet she didn’t necessarily always toe the line on civil rights. For instance, she was critical at times of Martin Luther King.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: She was. She was critical of him.

And — but what she worried about — and this is a fine line somebody like her had to dance or walk — is that she was worried the criticism being aired in the white world. I mean, for instance, there were moments when a black leader would say something to a mixed audience, and that worried her.

But within her reporting and within her own audience, she was at times very critical of different leaders.

GWEN IFILL: Now, she was in the journalism business, she was out of it. Sometimes, she was an advocate working for labor unions, or she was doing very many things. She kept…

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Or voter registration for the Democratic Party.

GWEN IFILL: Or voter registration.

Could someone like her, who was as easily an advocate as a journalist, could they exist today in this environment?

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Well, they do.

I mean, if you look at some forms of the media, there seems to be no line between their advocacy and their job in the media. But, no, I think traditional journalism would object to what she was doing. But there was also economic need. When she worked for The Defender as the Washington correspondent, she had to pick up extra work in order to make ends meet. This wasn’t a world of high-paid journalism.

GWEN IFILL: And, in fact, when she — she got a job working for CBS News that added substantially to her take-home pay.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: It certainly did.

When she became on television, on radio a black commentator, or a commentator who was black, what was interesting to me is what a profound effect that had on viewers. I met a man who became an anchor in several major markets, an African-American male who is now retired, and he said, when he saw her on TV, he realized that career was possible.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s kind of what I’m curious about with Ethel Payne and with other journalists of her generation, whether they had a lasting impact, even if many people now are thinking, who is that, whether the kinds of walls they broke down made a difference…

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: I think less so in terms of the walls, but more so in terms of their journalism and writing.

I mean, one of the things that happened is that she helped change the national agenda by her questioning. And then, when she left Washington and went to cover the front lines of the civil rights movement, what she was reporting back to people, particularly in the North — you know, Chicago is a place that Martin Luther King would come to raise money — was a really important link between the movement and the readers.

And that really helped change things. And she also was incredibly perceptive as a journalist. Even though, as I said, the white media wasn’t reading her work, she was the first to see the change in leadership that took place in Montgomery, where men of the cloth, as she described — she said this new gladiator goes into the battle wearing a reverse collar and a Bible in his hand.

That may seem light in tone, but what she was noticing was a really important transformation. And who was getting that news first were African-Americans, not the white press.

GWEN IFILL: I have to end by quoting back to you something in your book from Ernest Green, who was one of the Little Rock Nine. Looking back, he said, “Ethel and the black press successfully put themselves out of business.”

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: And he’s right.

Their success of being part of the civil rights movement meant that the best reporters from the black press got hired by the white press, and the economic base of black press disappeared. You know, when the black press got started in her town, for instance, in Chicago, The Chicago Tribune had no interest in covering anything that involved African-Americans, the wedding announcements, the high school graduation, the sport scores, the things that are the bread and butter of a newspaper.

So, the Defender had an economic basis. But, as soon as the media, the mainstream media, paid — started paying attention, that cut the economic feet out from underneath most of the black newspapers.

GWEN IFILL: Victim of their own success.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: James McGrath Morris, “Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press,” thank you for bringing this story to us.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: You’re welcome. Thank you very much.

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