James M. Morris. Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press. New York: Amistad, 2015. 466 pp. $27.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-06-219885-3.
Reviewed by Kimberley Mangun (University of Utah)
Published on Jhistory (November, 2016)
Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe
Ethel Payne’s Reporting Career Spanned Four Decades
James McGrath Morris, a former journalist and teacher whose books include a biography of Joseph Pulitzer, has struck gold with his latest work. He was interviewed by Gwen Ifill, co-anchor of PBS News Hour, as well as Karen Grigsby Bates for the NPR program Code Switch; participated in a National Press Club event held during Black History Month; and guested on The Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC. Morris’s book also has been reviewed in publications ranging from the Chicago Defender to the New York Times. This sort of interest in a book about a historical subject—in this case, the journalist Ethel Payne—is inspiring to those of us who labor for years in archives and hope that our work will have a broad reach.
Morris himself delved into numerous repositories to research Payne’s forty-year career, including the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, and the Lyndon B. Johnson Library. Morris consulted transcripts of a 1987 oral history with Ethel Payne and interviewed many of her friends and family members. In addition, he filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the FBI file that was opened on her in 1973. The documents he received were heavily redacted; an appeal to the Department of Justice to restore the information languished in its review committee for two years. Ultimately, Morris wrote in a 2013 piece for Al Jazeera America, the committee rejected his appeal.
The book is organized in three parts that reflect the stages of Payne’s long career. Part 1 begins with her formative years in Chicago, where Ethel Lois Payne was born in August 1911. Her father worked for the Pullman Company as a sleeping-car porter, a job that was at once sought-after and demeaning. Porters had little time off and endured racial epithets uttered by wealthy white travelers. But, Morris writes that the salary and tips enabled the Payne family to purchase a two-story home, complete with a basement and electricity, in 1917. Payne’s mother, Bessie, was known for her deep faith, strict household schedule, and “indomitable spirit” (p. 29). She also encouraged her six children to become voracious readers. They took weekly walks to the well-stocked city library in a white neighborhood adjacent to the Paynes’ community of West Englewood, bringing home armloads of books. Morris notes that this opportunity, out of reach of the families who lived in Chicago’s segregated Black Belt, had a profound “influence on the direction of [Ethel’s] life” (p. 13).
Payne and her siblings also had access to much better schools than the children who lived on the city’s south side. She attended the imposing Lindblom Technical High School and followed its rigorous college-prep curriculum of history, English, Latin, math, and science. By her own admission, Payne was not a good student. But she fell in love with writing. Payne’s mother and an English teacher who counted Ernest Hemingway among her students both encouraged Ethel to observe, listen, and write what she witnessed.
The sudden death of her father in 1926 and the onset of the Great Depression in 1930 affected Payne and her family personally and financially. For Ethel, the ensuing decade was one of exploration and frustration. She earned a degree in 1934 from the Chicago Training School for City, Home, and Foreign Missions and held a number of jobs over the next five years that paid enough to live comfortably, but did not quench her desire to be a writer. Morris describes her exasperation over Chicago’s entrenched racism and lack of employment opportunities, and notes that her “discontent” was further fueled by “her reporter-like observations of life” on the city’s segregated south side (p. 42).
An important turning point, Morris notes, was Payne’s involvement in the Chicago branch of the NAACP and her volunteer efforts to “turn out a crowd” for a mass meeting featuring labor organizer A. Philip Randolph on June 26, 1942 (p. 44). The Chicago Defender estimated that twelve thousand people attended the rally and listened to Randolph tell them “that it was their responsibility to wage the struggle” for equal rights (p. 45). A motivated Payne parlayed her volunteerism into a paid job and continued to work through 1943 on behalf of Randolph’s March on Washington Movement. Morris touches on her reaction to Randolph’s sexism, noting that “many of Randolph’s numerous female supporters tolerated his paternalistic treatment of women, but not Payne” (p. 48). She called and wrote him, and told him in no uncertain terms that she “refuse[d] to be taken for granted” (p. 48). Additional historical context on the role of black women in local advocacy and organizing and their efforts to combat gender oppression would have strengthened this section and demonstrated why it was so important that Payne spoke out.
A decision in 1948 to apply for an overseas posting at a US Army service club set the thirty-six-year-old Payne on a course that would, Morris writes, finally launch her journalistic career. She arrived in Japan on June 28 and began her job arranging entertainment for black servicemen and their families living in the Tokyo area. Payne filled her free time with exploration and kept a detailed diary that she hoped would form the basis of a magazine article once she returned to Chicago. But Chicago came to her, in the form of Defender reporter L. Alex Wilson. He was among the reporters who had been assigned to cover the role of black soldiers in the Korean War, which began on June 25, 1950. Payne impressed Wilson with her passion for writing and detailed notes and observations. He took her diary with him to Chicago and showed it to the Defender’s editor, Louis Martin. A month later, one of two stories that had been culled from her diary appeared on the paper’s front page with Payne’s byline. Morris recounts that she was elated, but her superiors in Japan “accused her of disrupting the morale” of the black regiments and reassigned her to command headquarters as a secretary (p. 76). Payne escaped other punishment after NAACP chief counsel Thurgood Marshall, who was in Tokyo investigating what appeared to be racially motivated trials of black soldiers, discussed her case with General Douglas MacArthur and secured an agreement to let Payne return to the United States before the end of her contract (p. 77). Editor Martin called Payne and offered her a job with the Defender. She “welcomed the opportunity” and in March 1951, after nearly three years abroad, Ethel Payne headed home to Chicago (p. 78).
Part 2 begins with Payne’s arrival at the headquarters of the Chicago Defender to meet with Martin. He had “a keen eye for talent,” Morris writes, and believed that Payne could master reporting by writing features and soft-news stories (p. 87). Her sojourn in Japan had given her new insights on Chicago and its racial restrictions, and her “personality traits, her ambition, and her skills were a recipe for success” (p. 89). Payne reported on a wide variety of people and topics for the weekly newspaper—employment in Chicago, the life of a Pullman porter, orphaned babies, unmarried women—and began garnering prizes from press associations. As Morris writes, “Payne had found her journalistic voice” (p. 97).
The opportunity to cover the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1952 afforded Payne “her first exposure to the federal legislative battleground for civil rights” (p. 101). Six months later, she was dispatched to Washington, DC, to cover the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Payne reported for the Defender on the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, an informal advisory group that had been created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She also “was enchanted by the … glitter and glamour” of the social events she attended; Morris describes her reporting as “gushing” (pp. 102-103). This wonderment at times affected her reportage, a subject that will be addressed later.
Payne returned to Chicago and local assignments that she felt were “mundane” (p. 104). So, when she was offered the position of the Defender’s Washington correspondent in November 1953, she seized the opportunity to report on national affairs. Morris writes about Payne’s involvement in the Capital Press Club, the alternative to the segregated National Press Club; her efforts to obtain a White House press credential (only two black reporters, Louis Lautier and Alice Dunnigan, had secured accreditation by then); and her persistent questioning during press conferences to ascertain President Eisenhower’s stance on civil rights. Payne’s “reporting grew aggressive and her writing took on an explanatory tone,” Morris writes, and “the line between journalism and advocacy blurred” (p. 149).
Morris discusses, too, the many trips abroad that Payne made during her long career, beginning with the chance to cover an April 1955 meeting of African and Asian leaders in Indonesia. On her way home, she stopped in Germany to interview black soldiers stationed there about race relations among the troops and off the bases. In addition, Payne was among the American journalists who were invited to Ghana in January 1957 to witness the country’s independence celebration, which was attended by Vice President Richard Nixon.
In between trips, Morris writes, Payne covered the growing civil rights movement for the Chicago Defender. She broke the story that the US Army had leaked details of Louis Till’s execution during World War II for raping two Italian women and murdering a third. His son, Emmett, had just been murdered in Mississippi and the divulged information was meant to exonerate his killers. In February 1956, Payne was sent to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to report on the standoff between the university there and Autherine Lucy, who had won a drawn-out court battle to enroll in classes. Payne also went to Montgomery to report on the unfolding bus boycott that was being led by Martin Luther King Jr. and other ministers. In September 1957, Payne journeyed to Little Rock, Arkansas, where mobs prevented nine students from integrating Central High School.
Despite Payne’s illustrious seven-year career with the Defender, an association that Morris notes was often vaunted on the newspaper’s front page, publisher John Sengstacke decided in 1958 to close the Washington bureau. She declined an offer to return to Chicago and was summarily terminated. Payne, who was almost forty-seven, soon accepted a position as the first black employee at the AFL-CIO’s Committee on Political Education and “put her pen to work promoting the agenda of the labor movement” to black audiences (p. 226). In 1962, she joined the Democratic National Committee as its deputy field director (p. 236). Morris describes Payne’s efforts to increase voter turnout and particular focus on women voters, who traditionally had stayed away from the polls.
Part 3 of Eye on the Struggle begins in 1966, at another turning point in Payne’s long career. After an eight-year absence from the Chicago Defender, publisher John Sengstacke made her an offer she could not refuse: a trip to Vietnam “to report on the activities of Negro soldiers and send messages back home from them” (p. 255). Payne’s assignment, Morris notes, made her the first black reporter to cover the war; no longer could the black press ignore it, because “African Americans made up a disproportionate number of the draftees” (p. 256). Morris recounts Payne’s visits with soldiers in all branches of the military, attendance at one of entertainer Bob Hope’s Christmas shows, and excursions to Da Nang, Saigon, and other destinations. For instance, she flew to the USS Enterprise, a navy aircraft carrier that was anchored in the Gulf of Tonkin, to observe how the “black troops were faring,” and toured a field hospital where black doctors cared for wounded soldiers (p. 262). Morris writes that the military’s “public relations staff was eager to take Payne on one of its well-rehearsed tours” (p. 261). She herself recognized that the Pentagon wanted her to write favorably about the war. However, that realization did not prompt the sort of critical reporting that she might have done during her nine-week stint in Vietnam, especially considering the fact that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was among the prominent individuals who were opposed to the escalating war. Morris notes that she later regretted her naiveté and focus on finding positive stories about troop integration.
Reinstalled in Washington, DC, as the Defender’s political correspondent, Payne focused again on reporting civil rights. In August 1967, for example, she covered a convention in Atlanta that commemorated the tenth anniversary of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Through that fall and into the early months of 1968, she reported on King’s efforts to involve the nation’s poor in a march on the nation’s capital. In April, one month before the planned protest, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Morris writes little about Payne’s reaction to the minister’s death. That is surprising because she had covered King since the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955-56.
Payne logged thousands of miles in the United States and abroad during the last twenty years of her career. A trip to Nigeria in 1970 to report on that country’s civil war was the first of a dozen journeys to Africa between then and 1990. She covered Secretary of State William Rogers’s ten-nation tour of the continent, the first time a person in that position had visited Africa. Payne reported “in gushing terms” on Zaire’s President Mobutu during a trip in 1972, accompanied Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on an extensive tour of Africa in 1976, and interviewed Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison in 1990 (p. 315). Payne was delighted to chat, as well, with Winnie Mandela, with whom she had corresponded for many years. Morris notes that Payne never wavered in her “devotion” to the activist—the journalist even called her the “Grand Lady of South Africa”—despite news accounts of her lavish lifestyle and endorsement of the brutal practice of burning people alive (p. 369).
Although Morris acknowledges throughout the biography that Payne frequently “reported unquestioningly on what she was told,” such as when she visited Vietnam in 1966 and toured China with a group of journalists in 1973, he stops short of assessing the implications of her uncritical reporting (p. 320). As a reporter for the black press, Payne shared her colleagues’ belief that it could “be a formidable instrument for change” (p. 384). She believed, too, that she could use her stories to “help bridge the gap between Africans and African Americans” (p. 364). But Payne, who often seemed “dazzled” by people and places, might have used the power of the press to greater advantage had she adopted a critical stance (p. 320). An example is her visit to refugee camps in Somalia, Sudan, and Zambia, where one small site held more than 10,000 refugees. Morris cites no news stories, only a letter to her family in which she observed that “people on welfare in the states live like kings” (p. 349).
Payne died of a heart attack in 1991 at age 79. The final chapter of the book summarizes in a few pages her funeral and legacy, which includes a 2002 US Postal Service commemorative stamp that “remains visible only in the collections of philatelists” (p. 388). Morris concludes that “much of the civil rights struggle” and Payne herself have been forgotten, a lament that perhaps was meant to underscore the need for his book (p. 388). It seems a shame to end the biography on such a low note, though I, for one, think about Payne every time I see the sheet of stamps bearing her likeness and the Defender’s nameplate propped on my office shelf.
Eye on the Struggle is interesting and readable; I completed the 389-page book in just two days. For this reason, it would be good assigned reading for undergraduates in classes on topics such as race, gender, and journalism. But, some readers will find Morris’s overuse of adjectives and clichés annoying. Others may have difficulty tracing the timeline of Payne’s career. I frequently referred to the endnotes for specific references to months and years. In addition, historians who are used to seeing detailed notations will be disappointed. Citations are sparse and occasionally missing or incomplete, which will make it difficult for anyone who wishes to do further reading in the primary sources that Morris used. He does, however, invite writers and researchers to contact him with questions.
Even so, this deeply researched biography is an important addition to the growing body of work by and about black female journalists—among them Ida Wells, Alice Dunnigan, Daisy Bates, and Era Bell Thompson—and contributes to studies of the Chicago Defender and the black press generally.
. James McGrath Morris, “US government secrecy making historical research difficult,” Al Jazeera America, October 23, 2013, accessed September 2, 2016, http://jamesmcgrathmorris.com/Resources/FOIA%20article.pdf.
. See, for example, David Beresford, “Row over ‘mother of the nation’ Winnie Mandela,” The Guardian, January 27, 1989, accessed September 2, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/century/1980-1989/Story/0,,110268,00.html.
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Kimberley Mangun. Review of Morris, James M., Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press.
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