James McGrath Morris on Ethel Payne, First Lady of the Black Press

February 20, 2017

Every significant turn towards progress has had its trailblazers, and history can easily forget these pioneering individuals who have helped get us to where we are today. One of the most important figures at the height of the civil rights movement was activist and journalist Ethel Payne, who played a pivotal role as a trailblazer for both women’s rights and civil rights in general, rising to become the first black female commentator employed by a national television network.

James McGrath Morris is an American biographer whose newest book is Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, First Lady of the Black Press. Morris follows Payne’s career as a journalist at the Chicago Defender, an important black newspaper known for covering stories the mainstream media didn’t cover. She was one of the best journalists of her time and one of very few black female journalists. Morris tells of Payne’s tenacity and her reputation for asking questions that no one else thought to ask, thereby arriving at the truth without having to persuade or editorialize.

This is point of inquiry, welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production of the Center for Inquiry. 

I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein. And I want to wish you all very healthy, happy and thought-Provoking. Black History Month. 

My guest today is distinguished historian James McGrath Morris. He’s the author of the bestselling book Eye on the Struggle. Ethel Payne, the first lady of the black press. James, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

I’m glad to be with you. 

What inspired you to write a book about Apple pain? 

Well, that’s interesting question. Practicality is one of the first bits of inspiration when you’re a biographer. I was searching for a new subject in a hurry because as a full time writer, I live off of my advances and book sales. And I’d written books about American journalists like Joseph Pulitzer Martin most famously. And I went to the Internet and started looking at lists of 100 most significant journalists in American history. And I thought patterns, names showed up on it. And frankly, like a lot of white Americans, I had no idea who she was. So I began to look into her life and discovered that chooses extraordinary enterprising reporter from the 1950s who had done a lot to advance the cause of civil rights and had done a lot to change the contours of journalism. Yet was relatively unknown. And by that I mean it’s the legacy of segregation. For 15 percent of Americans in the 1950s, Ethel Payne’s name might have been as famous as any broadcaster in American television at that time. But since we were such a segregated society, white Americans remained entirely ignorant of the black press as well as for pain. So within that lay a terrific story that I couldn’t resist pursuing. 

You would introduce purple pain to our listeners and a couple of sentences. How would you characterize her? 

How do I characterize her for pain? Well, it took me 400 pages. She her childhood and early experiences and her mother contributed to building a personality that never left a closed door bar her from moving forward. Like many African-Americans, her time and particularly black women, everything she wanted to pursue professionally was was a dead end. I mean, for instance, she wanted to be a professional writer in Chicago in the 1930s when seven out of 10 black women who held a job in Chicago held a job as a personal or private servant. It was laughed upon that she could pursue this kind of career and she never she never let her know get in the way. 

And that served a particularly well when she came to Washington as a national correspondent to imagine being a black woman in the 1950s. Standing up at the national press conference asking a white president a question took an enormous amount of courage and the courage, I think, was fostered and development developed in her childhood. 

And she also had a really good, strong background as an activist trading for black rights before she became a journalist. Can you talk about how that shaped her? No nonsense. 

Oh, sure. How did she. 

She remarkably, for instance, one of my favorite parts of the book that on Earth is in the 1940s. She joined the March on Washington. And people younger people often say the march on Washington. They merely say 1963, the famous march on Washington in which Martin Luther King gave his, well, widely quoted speech, I Have a Dream speech. Yet that March roots actually big back tour. Just before we entered World War Two, when the depression was still going on, unemployment is still very high. And because we began building armaments and preparation for war, jobs returned. But jobs returned for white Americans, not for black Americans. So Philip Randolph, a Labor leader, an African-American labor leader, and others got together and went to Washington to meet with the president and said they needed jobs in the munitions factories and they wanted the military to be desegregated. And if he didn’t do so, they would bring, you know, millions of African-Americans down on Washington to protest. Well, Roosevelt was to put a modern term, was quite freaked out by this possibility. Washington was a deeply segregated city. And the idea of blacks descending upon the city in protest on the eve of World War Two was unfathomable idea for him. So he gave in partially and created the EEOC, the whole opportunity commission, to ensure that the wartime jobs would be more evenly distributed. He did not desegregate the military. So Randolph called off the march and instead of created the March on Washington movement. And the idea was there would be rallies in cities around the country to keep the pressure on the president and on the government to hold up to its promises. Well, I feel pain went to join that in Chicago as one of his main organizers. But because of sexism in that day, and particularly in a lot of activist movements, sexism, just because they were campaigning for equal racial rights didn’t mean they were broad when it came to women basically wanted her to tape letters. And so she had the temerity and courage to stand up to him and say, if you want me to be part of this, I will be a, you know, an official member of the board here in Chicago, Iowa have real responsibilities. And you need to tell the men on the group that this is the case. And so, you know, this introduced her not only to the black freedom struggle in terms of joining the NAACP, running these rallies, being part of the March on Washington movement. But it also introduced her early on to the sexism that she would face as a woman. And she stood up. She stood up to him and to others like that in a way that I’m not sure I would have had the courage to do so. And the lovely coda to the story, which is a writer really thrilled me, has won the march on Washington in 1963, occurred have opened in a hotel room, sent a note to A.. Philip Randolph, who is still alive, and said, congratulations. We pulled it off. 

The immediate postwar period was the launching pad for Alpine’s journalistic career that followed her career as a full time activist. How did that happen for her? 

Well, it’s it’s like many things. I it was Frederick Douglass that said luck is the combination of opportunity and preparedness. She was in Japan and recognized more and more. Yeah. Yeah, that’s it. 

And actually, there are a lot of aspects of Apple Pen’s life that have a real bearing on people trying to deal with the media’s role today in a very adversarial occupant in the White House. But being a bean and working in Japan as a service club hostess, when we occupied Japan after World War Two, she got into some trouble with some work she was doing that ended up in journalistic connection. And she was offered a job at age 41 to work for the Chicago Defender. Chicago Defender was published in Chicago. But it was no more a Chicago newspaper than, say, The New York Times is merely a New York newspaper. It was a nationally circulated weekly and then daily was subscribed to by African-Americans all around the country and started in 1985. It was part of the things that triggers the mass migration of blacks to the north because it reported on the horrors in the South, but also reported on what people called the promised land. Chicago, Detroit and these other cities would still have segregation but had greater economic opportunity. And it became the conduit for critical information when the civil rights movement began to gain steam in the 1950s. Whereas Ethel Payne, a working for the for the Chicago Defender, was able to report from the frontlines both in Washington and the South to black Americans giving them information long before the white press did. That allowed them to act to be active and supporting what they saw. So she stumbled into this in many ways. But Louis Martin, the editor of The Defender, saw an ethical pan, something that actually a radio host was the one who first pointed out to me that she was much like the jazz artist. She was not schooled in journalism, just like a jazz or is might not have been schooled in a music school. She had learned on the bench and playing in the band. And that’s exactly what she did. She had a keen eye for what a journalist needs the right questions, and she got her training on the paper and went on to become so successful. 

So writing for The Defender was practicing on the bandstand. 

Yeah, exactly. I mean, you know, she spent a year in Chicago doing kinds of stories one might not want as a reporter. Her cub reporter year at age 41. Mind you, it’s a great story for people who were who think they might be a late bloomer. It is possible. So that’s where she developed her skills. Should she? She did take to writing courses at Northwestern University prior to that. But her skills were all short and she made some pretty bad journalistic mistakes like anyone would in those circumstances. But she learned from them. 

What were some of the mistakes that she learned from? 

Well, the classic one is is not always being aware that you’re being used by sources. And a reporter said some experience begins to learn this, that the reason somebody tells you something is often for their own self-serving reasons. And that was about all over the Urban League. And she reported some inside stuff that favored one of the insurgent candidates for the leadership of the Urban League without checking to the other side. And Louis Martin ran her through the wringer for doing that. And and there’s some moments later and this is that this becomes very touchy and it’s very has to be explained carefully. But she she was a little too soft on a fair number of despotic African leaders because, you know, the world had not seen pictures basically of blacks running their own government. So for an African-American reporter working in the black press, one wanted to treat these subjects with caution because in a sense, you don’t want to denigrate something you’re seeking. So at times, her coverage wasn’t as critical as she was in other ways. And she also faced that dilemma. And it’s a really understand dilemma. At the height of the civil rights movement and in the 60s with Martin Luther King, there were things that he was doing that people didn’t want to report because it would diminish him in the sense we don’t want to air our dirty laundry in an area where white people could see it. So sometimes sometimes the reporting was couched a little bit. And I think that’s completely defensible on understanding in that period. So I wouldn’t chalk that up in any way as a mistake. But I’m just trying to give you a sense of what a high wire act it was to be a black reporter reporting for the black crest in the middle of a revolutionary movement. 

It’s very interesting cause she kind of came of age at the very height of institutional neutrality in the press when he. Yes, but having biased it. 

Yeah, she is she she understood the notion of objectivity, but she said that she really couldn’t subscribe to it for a very simple reason. Any questions she asked to the president? 

And the article she pursued about civil rights was going to affect her personally in the sense that when she got up in the morning in Washington to get to the White House should determine whether a cab would pick her up. She had the plan or bathroom breaks. She had to figure out where she might be able to eat the way reporters never faced that. So, you know, when a white reporter got up and asked a question, that didn’t necessarily mean that the policy would affect him. But when she got up and asked a question, affected her. So she adopted a notion of fairness rather than objectivity because it was very clear that if you want to use the denigrating word of having a bias, she had a bias. She believed in racial equality. So the questions were couched in that way, reporting its coached that way. But her fairness degree, her belief and fairness was evident. I mean, I read every article she ever wrote. She was she was very fair to some what I would deem some of the creepiest, most despicable racists in the Senate at that time. But she did get a minor form of revenge, which is the one a talented writer. Which is let them hang on their own words. So she quoted them very accurately. But very often what they said end up being pretty bad about themselves. 

What was her role in covering some of the really big civil rights stories of the era, like the bus boycott? 

Well, the bus boycott was probably her first big, risky story in the sense that she’d been in Washington asking questions of national press conferences. She’d been at the Supreme Court when Brown v. Board decision was handed down. There were a lot of things like that that she did that were, you know, president history making moments. But when the bus boycott broke out, she begged permission to go to Montgomery. Her editors were very reluctant to give it to her. I mean, remember, this is a world in which women reporters were not treated very equally. In fact, when other black female reporter in the White House press corps had to borrow money from a bank in order to cover Truman train trip because her boss thought this is an appropriate thing for a woman to be traveling around chasing a president. So somehow she managed to convince her, her publisher and or editor let her go to Montgomery. And there are a couple of things going on there. First of all, she’s a woman going into the south, which is risky. She’s a black woman, which is doubly risky. But she also possessed something they feared greater. She’s a reporter. And the folks in Montgomery were not interested in having the world know what was going on in their suppression of African-Americans. And the bus boycott and the white press at this point wasn’t interested. It still is not a story. If you if you use search engines today to find the early mentions of Martin Luther King is appearing in northern papers as M. Period. Period. Completely unknown man. 

So she was no common for them to simply refer to black subjects by their initials rather than, you know, yes and no. 

It’s more it’s more just the notion that they didn’t know who he was and what they didn’t know how he used his name. I don’t I don’t think it was a lack of being deferential. I think it’s just simply the wire service said there’s a guy named here, period out, period. King. I think they spelled out Ralph Abernathy, his whole name. But that’s that’s how they are, Reverend MLK King. And they may pick that up from his father. But the point was he was unknown to the nation at that point. She arrives in Montgomery and within a day rates the lead. And I can’t quote it verbatim, but it is from my memory. It’s something like this. There’s a new gladiator going into the battle who wears a reverse color and holds a Bible on his hand. And what’s so significant about this comment she’s making, as she perceives from Ground Zero, the civil rights movement, that the leadership is changing from the legal fights led by people like Thurgood Marshall? Not that they wouldn’t continue, but this wasn’t going to be the centerpiece. And turning instead to a civil rights struggle based on the nonprofit ideas of Martin Gandhi, led by priests, both by people, by reverends, by men of the cloth, as you would call them. Her lead also represents a kind of language that her readership would understand. So before anyone else, the United States was noticing what was going on. She was at ground zero reporting it. And it gets even much more interesting and delicious than that. The white press began to learn what was going on in Montgomery and St. Louis, deciding this was a national story. So The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post began to send reporters down in Montgomery and they’d go to these church meetings because that’s where all the meetings took place. And somebody like Martin Luther King or Ralph Abernathy did not get up into the pulpit and say, hi, I’m Ralph Abernathy, because everyone in the audience knew them, except for the white reporters in the back of the church. So they’d lean over to the black reporters and say, who is that guy and how do you spell Abernathy’s that A, B, you know, etc.. And the white press realized that they were clueless in terms of getting into the black community. But what they possessed was an ability to get into the official white community. They could ask questions of the sheriffs that that wouldn’t weren’t going to ask questions, answered questions from black reporters. So every day at Dean’s drugstore, a white reporters and black reporters got together and they exchanged information. And I love the idea that liberals in the north, white liberals and north who are now beginning to get activated to join this cause we’re reading copy in their newspapers like The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, New York Times, Sam, Cisco, papers, etc., that was secretly shaped by black reporting, unknown to them. And I think this is the classic aspect of the civil rights movement that has been overlooked and just joyfully founded in writing her life. 

That’s great. How is she received by members of the white press establishment? Do they know what to make of a woman like her? Two different approach. They’re handed. 

There were a fair number of whites like any like any male, white or black in the 1950s who were uncomfortable with women as professionals. One of the reason Ethel Payne never seemed to manage to maintain a long term relationship with a male to her head is that I think a lot of the men she met would basically say, if we get married, you’re going to, you know, stop this foolishness. Right, and not continue. So there’s there’s there’s a lot of sexism about the idea of a women, a woman’s role in journalism at that time. Race in Washington. It was it was a big deal. And s I mean, when she went to Alabama, the University of Alabama, for instance, told told her point blank, we cannot guarantee your safety while you’re on campus, something that no one would dare say today. But the White House press corps was pretty open minded. And I think in many respects she helped a lot of reporters come to terms with things they weren’t aware of. James Folliard, who worked for The Washington Post after Ethel Panner, some very pointed questions of the president. She came over to her and said, you know, these are questions we should be asking. And and an Apple pan was very understanding. She thought, yes, sure, they should be asking, but they’re not questions that would have come up in their lives, their life experience. It wasn’t there when they were racist. They say they hadn’t confronted the things that she had confronted. So it didn’t seem like a natural questioner. So on the whole, they were supportive. And the Washington press corps. She came became widely admired in Washington as a reporter. And, you know, she she developed the moniker. It was not my name. The first lady of the black press was given to her. And when she died, The Washington Post editorialized that, you know, had she been a white reporter, the world would have known her. 

How did she feel about her role within the black press to to find that liberating? Was she satisfied with it or did you find it constraining? 

Oh, it was up and down. She thought the black press was terribly important, particularly for its activist role. And by that, she believed that one of the great powers of journalism, like many journalists believe, is not its role to editorialize like you might see on Fox TV, where they kind of yell at each other and tell you what to think, but more to merely report, because lighting the darker recesses of society is a means of triggering change. 

And asking questions of people in power is a means of making them accountable. And those are the two powers she saw in the press and thought the black press fulfilled a role that no one else was fulfilling. But at the same time, what happened was and Ernest Green, one of the kids and the Little Rock school desegregation struggle, later ended up being a Carter appointee. And he knew her lead in the 70s. I interviewed him and he said that he told Ethel Payne that essentially her work was gonna put out of business. 

And she was he was right, because as the black press succeeded in helping change America, the white press suddenly decided it needed to be integrated. The white press decided didn’t need to report on on matters of importance to the African-American community. So in Washington in the 1950s, like in Chicago where she grew up, you never saw notices of weddings between featured African-Americans. You never saw death notices. You never saw sports news from the black schools. That all changed with the 60s when The Washington Post nose woke up and said, wait a second, these are paying readers. Then they secondly went and hired the best reporters from the black press, skipping over Ethel Payne, because by then she’d become an older reporter and not one of the young Turks that could be hired. And that undermined the whole economic basis of the black press. So by the time her career came to start coming to its end, the press that she had been part of, the press she had nurtured was also, in a way, coming to an end. And there are some black newspapers that still exist. The Chicago Defender still exists, but they’re hardly healthy institutions anymore. And that’s because of the way the mainstream press integrated itself and and also integrated its coverage toward the end of her life. 

She had some desktops with other black reporters about covering controversial actions by black politicians. Can you talk about those those complex and what they meant? 

Well, I mean, I guess are you thinking about the business when Martin Luther King turns against the war? 

Oh, no. I was thinking about. Better than that. You know, when she’s talking about the Jesse Jack, how another reporter handled the interview with Jesse Jackson in Chicago. Yeah, yeah, sorry. 

I’d forgotten about that Hymie town incident. Yeah. But this states this shit Complan, because Milton Coleman and The Washington Post was the one revealed that that Jackson had basically used an anti-Semitic slur and conversation with him. And so African-American reporters working for white press as well as a black press, really came to struggle with his notion of what does one report about your own, in a sense, your own candidate, a candidate of your race running for president? And it was a big deal when it occurred. And and Ethel Payne was really unforgiving of Coleman for doing this. And and I think what that does is it, in a sense, showed her age at that point, because when she was at the height of her reporting in the 50s and 60s, she had a sense that she was on a public stage and so was every black leader on a public stage. And you had to be careful not to provide racists with ammunition. And by that, I don’t just mean bad people, I mean people in power. Remember, every every committee in the House was run by a Democratic Southerner. The people who were blocking the black freedom struggle. So a lot of things were not reported for that reason as sin of omission. And I think all of that came to stir again with the Jesse Jackson candidacy, where she faulted him for reporting on this. And I think in a sense, it’s a sad moment because it’s Ethel Payne is getting older and and hasn’t realized the success she’s had in changing the world and is is using a standard that might have been appropriate in the beginning, part of the civil rights movement. 

It’s interesting. She had kind of really perceptive observations about religion, and we learned early in the book that, you know, especially through her mom, the church was a big influence on her. Do you have any more to say about what role religion played in her life or her thinking? 

Well, you know, it’s I’m trying to think of a way to to put this. She was religious in the way and the way some American Jews are not religious. If you follow me, they I have some friends who are Jewish who would say they’re ethnically Jewish but not religiously Jewish. I like that, though. Well, I’m not I mean, I’m not sure. So I’m always careful when I use a religious analogy to be careful. 

But my point is what she learned in the Amish church, what she learned from her Mother Day with her own life. But she rarely really attended church. And I don’t think I don’t think that the belief part was as important to her as the values inculcated in her. But she did. She did something I thought really fascinating. One of the interesting Amy stories I discovered in researching Ethel Payne’s life was later in her life when she was a professor at Fisk University. She was invited to speak at an Amish church in Nashville. And she felt obviously very much at home in such a setting. And she told her audience that day, that will shoot and I’m paraphrasing her, that we were the generation that lay our lives down at risk to get our kids into college. But when we sent them off to college, we failed to tell my story. And I think that’s a profoundly significant thing for any oppressed group, whether it’s African-Americans, gay Americans, Hispanics, that when you do achieve success, when those doors are opened for generation, that ladder has a responsibility to pass on the stories to the next generation, just as different groups have. But in some ways, and I’m saying this from Apple Pains point of view, not from my view as a white historian or white, but ever in some ways, African-American older ones complained today that they failed in that, which is one of the reasons why a larger number of young black Americans don’t often understand the significance of voting, for example. Now, I’m not denigrating all young African-Americans. I’m just saying that there is a group there that doesn’t necessarily understand the sacrifices of the older generations. And that’s what she was warning about. 

Well, she’s saying that people held back for a reason why they didn’t want to burden their kids or they didn’t want their kids to market when they got to know, thinking that there is inflation. 

I don’t know if she had a reason. You know, I live in the state of New Mexico and I watched with fascination how several generations of Hispanics here purposely didn’t teach their children Spanish. And then those those generations are now teaching their children Spanish. So I don’t know if, you know, I’m not an expert on on on social integration. I don’t know of as African-Americans that she was speaking to. These would be middle class African-Americans in Nashville, whether part of their breaking through and gaining more equality meant that you no longer discuss these things. I don’t know the answer. I just thought her observation was so perceptive. And I say this because when the book first came out, I spoke around the country to large audiences of African-Americans. And I could see heads nod when I when I quoted that line that there was a sense that, you know, we didn’t pass on to the next generation the stories of our struggles and our fight. 

What do you think pain would make of today’s media landscape? 

Well, I think, you know, there’s the odd moment when the biographer is asked to channel the subject of their work. I think it is she would be I mean, she was, for instance, very uncomfortable with Ronald Reagan. And and I think she believes strongly in the press’s adversarial role. And I don’t think she would be interested in the kind of reporting that you see with particularly on the conservative side, where it’s an advocacy reporting where where the reporting actually tells you what’s wrong and how you should leave. But it goes back to those those powers of journalism. She who would want the press to ask tough questions of the president and to report on the things that he does not want reported on. And either she would believe that that is the key role of a journalist. That’s what gives them the power, the power to change the world. Because when you for instance, when you ask questions of somebody like Donald Trump, you’re the press is playing a role in changing the public agenda. And the president, like most presidents, but this one too extreme that we’ve never seen before, wants to control the public agenda. What are the top 10 things on it? Is something he wants to have control over. So, for instance, recently he spoke about terrorists attacks that were not covered by the media and The New York Times. Very briefly went and chronicled how wrong that statement is. And this is long attack by attack article with the coverage. That would have been the kind of thing Apple pain would suggest rather than editorializing how wrong year’s report, how wrong he is. 

That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for coming on the program. 

Oh, you’re welcome. As enjoyable. Thanks very much for having me. 

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Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.