The First Lady of the Black Press

Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Englewood has dedicated its journalism room to a woman known as "the First Lady of the Black Press.” Her name was Ethel Payne and she held that nickname while reporting for the Chicago Defender during the civil rights movement.

Though she graduated from Lindblom in 1930, she published exactly one article for her high school newspaper. And that was because she was never allowed on the newspaper's staff.

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Today, Payne is finally getting her due.

They were the headlines that inspired a generation; stories that moved a community. But the author's own story has been largely untold.

Chicago's Ethel Payne was the third African-American journalist to be given White House press credentials. And in 1953, she was one of only two black women in the press corps.

But her body of work over almost 40 years as a journalist is the true legacy of Ethel Payne. Her life story is captured in James McGrath Morris' biography, "Eye on the Struggle."

“I describe it as a legacy of segregation. She was an iconic figure to a large segment of the American population. She reported from the front lines of the civil rights movement, from Montgomery, from Little Rock. She traveled around the world linking the black freedom struggle here to events all around the world. She went to Africa 13 times,” said Morris.

Payne came to be known as the First Lady of the black press while she worked as the Washington correspondent for the Chicago Defender.

“The Defender was no more merely a Chicago paper than say The New York Times is merely a New York paper,” said Morris. “Its influence and its reach was tremendous.”

But this "First Lady" was treated like a second-class citizen.

“So Payne, when she comes to Washington as the correspondent for the Chicago Defender, she’s not only facing hurdles as a black person who might have a difficulty getting a cab. It's a highly segregated city. U.S. senators who wouldn't speak to her because of her color. She was also facing the second bind of being a woman. And the notion of standing up in a press conference, aggressively asking questions of a male, for a female to do that, was amazing. But for a black female to do it, it was astonishing,” said Morris.

And it wasn’t just any male.

“Eisenhower was enormously successful and popular. And when she was in the press corps, there were three African-Americans, and she was the third,” said Morris. “What I try to get people to understand is imagine what it'd be like to stand in the back of the hall, raising your hand, the president recognizes you, and what happens? All of those white faces turn to you and look at you. And her first time doing that, she read her questions out of nervousness. It's a really big moment.”

Her work not only inspired her black readers to action in the civil rights movement, but she also covered stories that had been ignored by the white press.

“She wrote the first story and was also the first to perceive at Ground Zero this amazing change in the civil rights movement, that was moving from the legalistic battles of Thurgood Marshall and others, to the nonviolent struggles of Martin Luther King and [Ralph] Abernathy,” said Morris. “And she wrote famously, ‘This gladiator goes into battle wearing a reverse collar and holding a bible in his hand. This new Moses is the Negro preacher...’ And that was, first of all, it’s the kind of wording that is activating for her readers in the north, providing critically important information.”

Morris says that as Payne covered the civil rights movement, she recognized that she was part of the story, and her coverage sometimes reflected that.

“The white press portrayed the bills as gifts being given to African-Americans, a very passive form of verbs. When Ethel Payne portrayed them, she focused on what was not being given; how LBJ and Kennedy were gutting the ‘57 Civil Rights Act. And when they did win, she portrayed them as a victory of obtaining the rights that we already deserved and our actions,” said Morris. “What Payne discovered is that merely asking a question at a national press conference could put the issue on the national agenda. So she began to ask tougher and tougher questions.”

With Payne's help, the Chicago Defender played a key role in changing the national agenda on civil rights. The paper's importance was honored by a Chicago Public Library special exhibit.

“We like to say that the Chicago Defender not only documents or captures and records the news, but we also create the news,” said Chicago Defender Executive Editor Kai El’Zabar. “And what the Chicago Defender does is we report the news, we examine things, we look at things from the life that we experience, and we bring that very unique voice to the table.”

And even today, the Chicago Defender makes history. For the first time, women are at the helm, serving as both the paper's publisher and executive editor.

“Ethel Payne would be astonished to see women in power, because it was such a struggle for her,” said Morris. “One aspect of the civil rights movement and the community back then is its attitudes towards women weren't much different than the national attitudes towards women.”

Meaning a host of journalists–this one included–owe Ethel Payne their gratitude for her pioneering spirit.

Read an excerpt from Morris' book, Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press.

A Presidential Pen

As the seven o’clock hour neared on the evening of July 2, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson took a seat before a table at one end of the East Room in the White House. Nine months earlier the ornate room had been a somber place when President John F. Kennedy’s body lay in repose on the catafalque that had been made for President Abraham Lincoln’s casket in 1865. In contrast, the mood on this night was exuberant.

Resting on the table, to the left of a green blotter, was the final draft of the Civil Rights Act that had been approved less than five hours earlier by overwhelming numbers in the House of Representatives. The venerable New York Times hailed the new law as “the most sweeping civil rights legislation ever enacted in this country” and reported that civil rights leaders regarded it “as a Magna Carta in the struggle to secure equal treatment and opportunity for the Negro.”

All that remained now was for the president to add his signature to the bill. For that, Johnson needed an audience. Arrayed before him in rows of gold-colored chairs on the Fontainebleau oak parquetry and awash in klieg light sat two hundred and fifty of the nation’s most powerful and recognizable politicians, officials, and activists whose work, in one way or another, had led to this moment. The remainder of America watched on living room televisions.

When the president looked up through his wire-rimmed glasses he saw a vista of familiar white faces punctuated only occasionally by a dark countenance and almost entirely devoid of women. But sitting six rows back was a figure both female and black. In assembling a guest list suitable to the magnitude of this event, the White House had not failed to include Ethel Lois Payne.

While unrecognized by many of the whites in the East Room, fifty-two-year-old Payne was an iconic figure to readers of the nation’s black press. The granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of a Pullman porter, the South Side Chicago native at midlife had inspiringly traded in a monotonous career as a library clerk for one as a journalist at the Chicago Defender, the country’s premier black newspaper. In a matter of a few years she had risen to become the nation’s preeminent black female reporter of the civil rights era, and during the movement’s seminal events in the 1950s it had been her words that had fed a national black readership hungry for stories that could not be found in the white media.

Her unflinching yet personable reporting had enlightened and activated black readers across the country and made her a trusted ally of civil rights leaders. Among those in the White House audience that night, labor leader A. Philip Randolph remembered her as far back as 1941 when she worked with him on his March on Washington Movement. For Clarence Mitchell Jr., the potent lobbyist for the NAACP, she had been a dependable confederate in the White House press corps during the Eisenhower administration. And Martin Luther King Jr. had first been the subject of her perceptive reporting during the initial days of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott when Payne crafted the earliest account of the black clergy’s ascension to the leadership of the civil rights movement.

On this night Payne was in temporary exile from her craft, serving as a Democratic Party functionary. But when she had sat in the ranks of the press, crowded together on the other side of the East Room, she had given black America a voice and presence at the highest reaches of power that could not be ignored. From challenging the white occupants of the White House and courthouses to reporting firsthand on events from Alabama to Africa and Asia, Payne had traveled the length of the civil rights movement that led to the legislative victory celebrated this evening. In doing so, she had served as both an emissary from and a representative for a large group of Americans long neglected by the mainstream media. She was, as she would later be called, “the First Lady of the Black Press.”

Despite a storied history dating back to 1827, the black press that employed Payne had unremittingly chronicled racism, eloquently protested injustices, impassionedly educated its people, and remained—like most African American institutions—completely out of sight of white America. “To most white Americans the black press was a voice unheard, its existence unknown or ignored,” said Enoch P. Waters, an editor at the Chicago Defender. “It was possible for a white person, even one who believed himself well informed, to live out his three score years and ten without seeing a black newspaper or being aware that more than 150 to 250 were being published throughout the nation.”

Until the civil rights movement made its mark, African Americans were absent from the pages of the nation’s white newspapers unless they were accused of a crime. When Payne was growing up, her hometown Chicago Tribune chose words like negress or southern darky when it mentioned the city’s black residents. The important events of their lives such as graduations, marriages, and deaths were not commemorated in the white press. The useful news African Americans wanted about church, schools, entertainment, sports, not to mention politics, was nowhere to be found. It was in this capacity that Payne’s employer the Chicago Defender and other members of the black press had found their initial role.

But the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro-American, the New York Amsterdam News, the Pittsburgh Courier, and other black newspapers grew to have circulations beyond their cities and an influence greater than their press runs would lead one to believe. “The most predominant media influence on black people was the black newspaper,” recalled veteran reporter Vernon Jarrett, whose Negro Newsfront was the first daily radio news broadcast in the United States created by an African American. “They were—our internet. They were our cement that helped keep us together.”

Dressed in a dark suit, President Johnson faced a bank of four large cameras arrayed in front of the table. Between them stood a blue and black metal box that held within it a glass screen on which the text of his speech was projected. He was the first president to make use of this new technology being called a TelePrompTer.

In a thick voice laced with a Central Texas drawl, the president began by invoking the gathering that 188 years ago had produced the Declaration of Independence, which embodied the American ideals of equality and inalienable rights. But, he said, these rights and these blessings of liberty had been denied to Americans “not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skins.”

Such unequal treatment was impermissible under the Constitution, he said, “and the law I will sign tonight forbids it.” It will provide no special treatment for any group. Rather, Johnson continued, “it does say that those who are equal before God shall now be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and other places that provide services to the public.”

His speech concluded, Johnson drew the first nib pen from a supply sticking up from a rack like porcupine quills. He dipped it into an ink bottle and began to write. Using each of the pens before him, and more brought by an aide, he inscribed “Lyndon B. Johnson, approved July 2, 1964, Washington, D.C.” at the bottom of the engrossed legislation before him, adding dashes and dots, and putting periods in D.C. so as to extend his use of pens to more than seventy-five, creating with each one he touched a much-sought- after political trophy.

The crowd surged forward and encircled the desk. Johnson gave the first pen to Senators Everett Dirksen and Hubert Humphrey as a reward for their work in breaking the fifty-seven- day filibuster mounted by Southern senators and ending the longest debate in that chamber’s history. House members Republican William McCulloch and Democrat Emanuel Celler were given pens for their work as the bill’s managers in their chamber. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy was handed six pens to distribute to Justice Department aides. Then reaching over his left shoulder, grasping Martin Luther King’s hand, and pausing for the cameras, the president bestowed a pen on the civil rights leader.

Ethel Payne too rose from her seat and slowly made her way to the front. Standing five feet three inches tall, she wore a striped skirt and jacket. A small soft white beret, angled to her right side, completed the outfit. As the crowd thinned around the president, Payne moved closer to the desk until she stood at its front edge.

Johnson looked up. Payne smiled, and her face, with its skin a warm shade of nut brown, took on a disarming countenance. In many a time and place, it had been a mollifying power. The president reached his arm across the table and placed a pen in Payne’s hand. The journalist, whose reporting had both chronicled and inspired the movement, clutched the writing instrument and said, “Thank you, Mr. President.”

From EYE ON THE STRUGGLE by James McGrath Morris Copyright © 2015 by James McGrath Morris. Reprinted courtesy of Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Below, a timeline of Payne's life and career.

–Timeline by Linda Qiu

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