On the morning of July 7, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower entered the Indian Treaty Room in the Executive Office Building, where 165 members of the overwhelmingly white and male press corps were gathered. After briefly congratulating the reporters on the media’s efforts to reduce fireworks casualties during the recent Fourth of July celebrations, the president began to take questions.
A UPI reporter asked: Would Eisenhower support the admission of Red China to the United Nations? A New York Times correspondent wanted to know: Did the pending farm bill meet with the administration’s approval? One reporter after another plied the president with predictable questions on politics, policy and foreign affairs.
But Ethel L. Payne had a more pressing issue to address. As the Washington correspondent for the Chicago Defender, the nation’s leading black newspaper, she had carefully formulated a question, with the assistance of Clarence Mitchell, the chief lobbyist of the NAACP, that reflected the growing hopes of African Americans in the months after the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools.
Only a few years earlier, Payne, the granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of a Pullman porter, had been working as a clerk in the bowels of a library in Chicago. Now, after a lucky career break and a meteoric rise on the staff of the Chicago Defender, she stood nervously before the president as one of only three accredited African Americans in the White House press corps.
“Mr. President,” she began in her deep voice when Eisenhower called on her, “we were very happy last week when the deputy attorney general sent a communication to the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee saying that there was a legal basis for passing a law to ban segregation in interstate travel. . . . I would like to know if we could assume that we have administration support in getting action on this?”
This wasn’t the first time she had gotten a crack at the president. Eisenhower began calling on her earlier that spring, a year into her service as a Washington correspondent. Each time, Payne had focused on race, from the exclusion of the Howard University chorus at a Republican event to Vice President Richard Nixon’s comment that every act of racial discrimination or prejudice in the United States hurts America as much as an espionage agent who turns over a weapon to a foreign enemy.
So far, the president had dispatched her queries with platitudes. Her question on this day, however, hit a nerve. Eisenhower drew himself up into his military posture. “You say that you have to have administrative support,” he barked. “The administration is trying to do what it thinks and believes to be decent and just in this country, and is not in the effort to support any particular or special group of any kind.”
The room was startled by this brusque reply. Nor was it lost on the reporters that Eisenhower had suggested that African Americans and their quest for equality were tantamount to a special interest. A UPI reporter switched the subject to the potential for Hawaiian statehood.
At the end of the news conference, Edward T. Folliard, a veteran reporter from The Washington Post, came up to Payne. “You asked the right question,” he told her. “In fact, we should have asked those questions sooner.” The Washington Star’s afternoon edition carried a Page One headline: President Annoyed by Query on Travel Race Ban Support.
Eisenhower had learned his lesson. He stopped calling on Payne. In the coming months, White House press secretary James Hagerty explored ways to revoke her accreditation. “Miss Payne had been asking questions on segregation at the White House press conference which seemed to irritate the President,” wrote syndicated columnist Drew Pearson. “Certainly,” Pearson elaborated, “Hagerty made it clear, they irritated him. For he had done a thorough investigation of Miss Payne, which apparently included her income tax returns.”
After her dust-up with Eisenhower, Payne began expanding her reporting to the Southern desegregation battlegrounds, keeping her away from the press room for long stretches, to the relief of the White House.
But even outside Washington, she remained ahead of her white colleagues on what they had begun to call the “seg beat.” For example, on the scene of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. — before the name of Martin Luther King Jr. had even appeared in a national newspaper — Payne reported that a new black leadership was emerging, different from the old ranks of the NAACP. “Instead,” she told her readers, “this gladiator going into battle wears a reverse collar, a flowing robe, and carries a Bible in his hand.”
Her stories from the South and her continued nudging presence in the Washington press corps made her one of the civil rights movement’s most visible chroniclers for African Americans — but she was unknown to white readers. Over the next three decades, she became known in Washington as “the first lady of the black press.”
As the movement gained traction, Payne went overseas in the belief that international affairs and civil rights were inextricably linked. She made a 10-nation reporting tour that included joining author Richard Wright and politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Bandung, Indonesia, the site of an Asian-African summit. She also accompanied Nixon to Ghana, where she witnessed the first meeting between King and Nixon. She spent three months in Vietnam, covered the Nigerian civil war, and went to China with Susan Sontag and others, one of the first groups of American journalists to tour the nation after Nixon’s 1972 visit. In the 1970s, CBS hired Payne, making her the first African American female radio and television commentator on a national network.
Through all of this, Payne remained steadfastly with the Defender for more than 25 years, with the exception of a short hiatus when she worked for the Democratic National Committee and the AFL-CIO. Newsmakers never ceased to complain about her aggressiveness.
Payne saw herself both as an emissary from and a representative of a large group of Americans long neglected by the mainstream media. A few years before her death, she told an interviewer, “I stick to my firm, unshakeable belief that the black press is an advocacy press, and that I, as a part of that press, can’t afford the luxury of being unbiased . . . when it come to issues that really affect my people, and I plead guilty, because I think that I am an instrument of change.”
Sunday marks the centenary of Payne’s birth. But sadly, only 20years after her death, she is little remembered, a victim of the very racism she fought as a journalist. “Had Ethel Payne not been black,” The Washington Post noted in an editorial on her passing in 1991, “she certainly would have been one of the most recognized journalists in American society.”
In 2002, Payne was one of four female journalists honored with a likeness on a U.S. postage stamp. The others were white journalists Ida Tarbell, Marguerite Higgins and Nellie Bly. As with the other three, Payne’s story offers a gentle reminder that the great power of a free press rests on a simple notion of rendering those in power accountable.
Payne’s journalism invoked none of the angry name-calling fashionable in the news media today. Rather, she brought only one weapon with her when she gained access to the halls of power on behalf of her readers. It was to ask questions that others were not asking.
And she got answers.
James McGrath Morris, the author of “Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power,” is writing a biography of Ethel Payne.