Elizabeth R. Varon is Langbourne M. Williams Professor of American History at the University of Virginia and author, most recently, of “Appomattox: Victory, Defeat and Freedom at the End of the Civil War.”
By James McGrath Morris
466 pp. $27.99
‘If not for the triumph of the civil rights movement, I don’t know where I would be, but there is no way on God’s Earth I would be writing a column for The Washington Post,” Eugene Robinson wrote recently in the pages of this newspaper. James McGrath Morris’s new biography of pioneering journalist Ethel Payne illustrates how African American reporters shaped and were shaped by the freedom struggle. Payne’s storied career took her from Chicago to Washington, to the Deep South and across the globe. In that career’s every phase, Payne was animated by the principle that journalists, and the black press in particular, must be advocates for equality and justice.
Payne was born in Chicago in 1911, the granddaughter of slaves. Morris, a historian of journalism and biographer of Joseph Pulitzer, vividly recounts Payne’s coming of age on Chicago’s South Side. Amid the era’s strife — race riots, the Great Depression, segregation — Payne found solace in books (Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” was among her favorites) and in writing.
As a young woman, Payne did stints as a teacher and librarian but found the work too staid. She was drawn instead to activism on behalf of A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington movement, targeting discrimination and segregation in the military and war industries during World War II. Payne got a new angle of vision on these issues when she accepted a job in 1948 as a military hostess at a social club in Tokyo, organizing recreational activities for black servicemen and their families. A troubling story caught her attention: The mixed-race children of black soldiers and Japanese women languished as social outcasts. Payne’s efforts to publicize the story in turn caught the attention, in 1950, of Chicago Defender reporter L. Alex Wilson. With Wilson’s help, Payne secured a position at the Defender, the premiere outlet of the black press. She returned to the United States to pursue her long-cherished dream of writing for a living.
Gifted and prodigious in her newfound profession, Payne embraced the Defender’s mission of chronicling racial injustice. She rose quickly through the ranks, from cub reporter working the local beat in Chicago to national correspondent assigned to cover the White House. Along the way, she became a Washingtonian. From the start, the capital fascinated her, both as the battleground between Democrats and Republicans, and as a scene of glamour and promise.
Payne’s articles on the politics of desegregation established her as a leading journalistic voice of the civil rights movement. A pivotal moment in Morris’s biography is his account of how Payne, in July 1954, publicly clashed with President Dwight Eisenhower. In the midst of the furor over the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of May 1954, Payne prodded Ike about his next move, asking him during a news conference whether his administration supported further integration, specifically of interstate travel. Eisenhower thought the question hostile and bristled openly at the notion that blacks had the right to administration support. Morris sees the encounter as richly symbolic. Payne had exposed the hypocrisy of the Republicans’ half-hearted bid to draw black voters away from the Democrats — Eisenhower regarded African Americans as a special-interest group that must patiently wait in the wings, not as core constituents and fellow citizens. With this incident, Payne was now making headlines as well as writing them.
Payne’s character — her courage and refusal to be bullied — informed her coverage of the civil rights movement. Whether she was posted in the South, covering events in Montgomery, Little Rock and Selma, or tracking the debates over the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Washington, Payne challenged the idea, rampant in the white press, that equality was a gift to be bestowed or withheld by whites. She insisted instead that equality was a human right and that progress in American race relations was powered by black activism, guided by the vision of Martin Luther King Jr. Payne did not hesitate to call out the leading men in the Democratic Party, including Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy, when they failed to support the freedom struggle. Nor did she hesitate to praise them when they came around. She regarded President Johnson’s March 1965 voting rights speech as ranking in greatness with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Morris covers what he considers to be Payne’s missteps as well as her triumphs. The missteps often came in the context of her travels to foreign countries, in the form of uncritical reporting on what she saw there. For example, when she went in the spring of 1955 to the historic Bandung Conference on Asian-African cooperation, she praised Indonesia’s authoritarian President Sukarno, regarding him wishfully as a champion of the downtrodden; she also praised Zaire’s autocratic leader, Joseph Mobutu, when she met him in 1972. And when the Defender dispatched Payne to Vietnam as the first black reporter to cover the war there, she sent back dispatches focusing on the progress of integration in the Army, rather than on “the immorality of the war,” as she later put it. Her 1973 trip to communist China prompted the FBI to conduct an investigation. Although the bureau concluded that Payne was not a subversive, much of its report on her, Morris notes with frustration, remains classified to this day.
The last years of Payne’s career were marked by a string of further achievements but also a diminution of influence. She continued to travel the world as an independent columnist, with Africa as her favorite destination, and to develop expertise on a wide range of topics, from South African apartheid to the refugee crisis in Somalia. She clung to the hope that her reporting could “help bridge the gap between Africans and African Americans.” She received numerous honors from her fellow journalists even as her opportunities to publish evaporated; to modern ears, her writing style seemed old-fashioned. The black press itself declined in significance after the civil rights era, but thanks in part to Payne and her generation of pioneers, the voices of black journalists achieved new prominence in the mainstream media. In May 1991, Payne died in Washington of a heart attack. She was 79.
Morris’s research on Payne is meticulous and exhaustive — the biography draws not only on her writings and recollections, but also on those of her colleagues, employers, readers, rivals, students, family and friends. Morris wisely ends the book by quoting from the lyrical eulogy delivered for Payne by her nephew James A. Joseph. Payne “used her skills not to acquire power for herself but to activate power for others,” Joseph said. “She was not simply reporting the news. She was stretching the horizon of the heart.”