"Mr. President, the Interstate Commerce Commission has issued an opinion saying it is time to end segregation in interstate travel. When can we expect that you would give an executive order regarding this?"
Dwight D. Eisenhower pulled himself up to military erectness and glared at the newcomer to the press corps, Ethel Payne. "What makes you think I am going to give special favoritism to special interests? I am the president of all the people," he fired back.
Payne chuckles as she remembers the commotion she caused: "He chewed me out like he was chewing out one of his sergeants. The Star that afternoon had a box on the front page, 'Negro Woman Reporter Angers Ike.' And, boy, I tell you the telephones were ringing off the hook, and my mother in Chicago heard the story on the radio and called and said, 'Now, sister, you ought not be down there making the president mad.' "
Payne has survived the angry glares of presidents, the loving caution of her family and the occasional discomfort of her subjects to enjoy a special rank among black journalists. For more than 20 years she was a political correspondent for the Chicago Daily Defender, covering Washington politics, all the presidential campaigns from 1956, the Vietnam war, the Nigerian Civil War and events in every major country except Russia and Australia. In the early 1970s, she became the first black woman to be a television commentator, working for six years with the CBS television and radio series "Spectrum."
Now, at 70, Payne still gets up at 5 a.m. each day to write and research her weekly column for the Afro-American newspapers and two other black weeklies, a minority-owned magazine, Dollars and Sense, and her radio commentaries for seven midwestern states.
"Box seat on history," is the way Payne describes her life. "I had a window, a vantage point on what was happening." Nearly 500 of her friends and prote'ge's from around the country who consider Payne the first lady of black journalism gave her a lovingly verbose testimonial Saturday night at the Capital Hilton Hotel. In the back of the room, activist Dick Gregory listed himself among Payne's loyal yet distant admirers. "I feel her energy, honesty and integrity," said Gregory. "She represents the lives of all black women and the beauty of this night is that no one had to tell any lies."
Sitting in her upper 16th Street living room, which overflows with books, plants, posters from China and ivory plaques and figures from Africa, Payne sketched her journey of words and personalities. Short and solidly built, with a silver-streaked wig and lion-head earrings, Payne did a hilarious imitation of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. A few minutes later she pulled out an unopened bottle of 119 proof bourbon that then-vice president Richard Nixon gave her. With a historian's love of detail, she described a roasted-peacock dinner with then-prince Faisal and her interviews with Chou En-lai, Haile Selassie, Leopold Senghor, Kenneth Kaunda, Idi Amin and Julius Nyerere.
Payne, the Chicago-born daughter of a Pullman porter and high school Latin teacher, had an idea of the impact she wanted to have before her career choice crystallized. "I had a great sense of indignation for people who couldn't defend themselves," said Payne. Initially law intrigued her. But her baptism into journalism came in 1949 when two visiting black correspondents convinced Payne, an Army club director in Tokyo, to send her observations on discrimination to the Defender.
The banner headlines in the Defender, then a nationally distributed weekly, caused quite a stir. "The next thing I knew I got called into Allied headquarters and was dressed down by MacArthur's top aide for allegedly disrupting the morale of the troops," recalls Payne.
Her sharp eye and fluid style prompted Louis Martin, then editor of the Defender and later a high-ranking adviser to presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter, to offer her a job.
Within two years she was the Washington correspondent. "I was probably obnoxious to some people. I was very aggressive, very curious and determined to be accepted, just like everybody else," says Payne.
Her first important story, she recalls, was about Annie Lee Moss, a Capitol Hill file clerk, whom attorney Roy Cohn and Sen. Joseph McCarthy accused of being a Communist. "She was produced because someone had given her husband a subscription to the Daily Worker. But these papers were piled up on her back porch, some of them still in the brown paper," recalls Payne. "At the hearings Sen. Stuart Symington asked her, 'Do you follow the teachings of Karl Marx?' And she [Moss] turned to her lawyer, George E.C. Hayes, and asked, 'Who is Karl Marx?' And the hearing room exploded. McCarthy stormed out of the room."
Long before black weeklies took international news seriously, her publisher sent her to Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, for the first conference of Third World countries. "It gave assertiveness to the dependent countries and was followed by the burgeoning of their independence. The world hasn't been the same since."
In Bandung, as everywhere, there was curiosity about this black woman reporter. "When our plane landed in Jakarta, I looked out and saw people gathered around with notebooks. When I got off, they converged and made a welcome speech. And I said, 'You are mistaken, I am not a dignitary.' They said, 'We came to see the American Negro, we want to hear all about you,' " says Payne. "Well, then-representative Adam Clayton Powell was standing with the VIPs but they didn't know what his race was. So he saw the crowd and came over and put his arm around me and said, 'Me colored, too.' "
A year after Nixon attended the independence ceremonies of Ghana, Payne and Simeon Booker, the Washington bureau chief of Johnson Publishing Co., planned a reunion of the traveling group. She invited the Nixons, never thinking they would come. "I just figured we were going to boogie-woogie in this empty apartment. Then the Nixons accepted. So I dashed out, went to Hecht's and told the manager I have got a problem. The next day a van rolled up with furniture, rugs and silverware. Later I paid for it on time," says Payne, telling the story as she pads around barefoot.
Appreciation for Payne extends beyond the journalism community. Dorothy Height, the president of the National Council of Negro Women, remembers, "In the late 1950s when the Prince Edward County schools locked the black children out of the white schools and formed so-called private schools, Ethel organized 'Knock on Every Door.' That was a door-to-door solicitation campaign to raise money to tutor the black students. She is a writer with a strong social conscience, but she hasn't used it only for her own gains."
Throughout her career, Payne has wrestled with her standard of fair, critical and caring reporting. "I have a penchant for ferreting out injustices, I don't care who it is, I just think when something's wrong, it's my right to expose it," says Payne. Right now Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Samuel Pierce, Payne says, is annoyed at her reporting of charges of racism in his department.
"There's an ambivalence sometimes because people think you are breaking a code of tradition if you criticize your own people."
Except for a four-year leave to work at the Democratic National Committee, Payne has spent the last 30 years traveling and writing. Payne combined activism and reporting during the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement, standing near president Lyndon B. Johnson when he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Though Payne wears a traditional Liberian wedding band of gold filigree, she has never married. "Oh, I left one man waiting at the dock. And I have had two or three great loves. But I really became absorbed in my work," explains Payne.
Looking back, Payne recalls the subjects and sources that became lasting influences on her own philosophy. Clarence Mitchell Jr., the former Washington lobbyist for the NAACP, whom she consulted before presidential press conferences, is one. "He is so consistent, forthright and honest," says Payne. "Then collectively, the women of the civil rights movement--Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hammer, Amelia Boynton, one of those trampled in the Selma March, and Grace Lorch, the white woman who went to Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine and protected her from those jeering demons."
From the first day of her career, her credo hasn't changed, she insists, smiling: "I go back to Frederick Douglass' advice: 'Agitate, agitate, agitate.' "