An act of re-dis­cov­ery

Eye on the Strug­gle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black ress by James McGrath Mor­ris

Pasatiempo - - NEWS -

2002, the United States Post Of­fice rec­og­nized four ground­break­ing Amer­i­can women jour­nal­ists by putting their faces on stamps: Nel­lie Bly, Mar­guerite Hig­gins, Ida Tar­bell, and Ethel Payne. Bi­ogra­phies have been writ­ten about the first three women — in the case of Bly, mul­ti­ple bi­ogra­phies — but un­til now no full-length book had been pub­lished about the fourth. Santa Fe res­i­dent and ex­pe­ri­enced bi­og­ra­pher James McGrath Mor­ris started check­ing with his­tor­i­cal ar­chives about in­quiries into Payne a few years ago, as he was pre­par­ing a book pro­posal, sure that some­one must be work­ing on such a project, but he dis­cov­ered that no one was.

“The postage stamp was kind of a metaphor for writ­ing about her,” said Mor­ris, whose book Eye on the Strug­gle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press was re­leased by Amis­tad/HarperCollins this month. He reads from and signs copies of it at Col­lected Works Book­store on Thurs­day, Feb. 19.

Though Payne is an icon for a large group of Amer­i­cans, she is un­known to many oth­ers, and some of the peo­ple who were asked to write blurbs for the book re­ferred to Mor­ris’ re­search as an act of dis­cov­ery. “It’s only an act of dis­cov­ery for some­body on my side of the racial line,” he said. Mor­ris, who is also the au­thor of Pulitzer: A Life in Pol­i­tics, Print, and Power and Jail­house Jour­nal­ism: The Fourth Es­tate

Be­hind Bars , grew up over­seas as an em­bassy brat and at­tended pri­vate board­ing schools. Payne grew up in West Englewood on Chicago’s South Side. In the 1960s, as Mor­ris was meet­ing his first AfricanAmer­i­cans at age eight — do­mes­tic ser­vants in his par­ents’ house — Payne was in her sec­ond decade of cov­er­ing the civil rights move­ment as the Wash­ing­ton cor­re­spon­dent for The Chicago De­fender , the pre­mier news­pa­per for African-Amer­i­cans for many decades, in­side and out­side the Windy City. Payne’s re­port­ing style was rem­i­nis­cent of Ernie Pyle’s let­ters home: She al­ways kept her au­di­ence in mind. She re­ported from over­seas nu­mer­ous times, in­clud­ing from the Ban­dung Con­fer­ence of African and Asian lead­ers in In­done­sia in 1955. She met au­thor Richard Wright there and shared a mo­ment of in­ti­mate friend­ship with him that he later ex­ploited to prove a so­ciopo­lit­i­cal point in a book about the con­fer­ence. She also re­ported on black­i­den­tity is­sues from war zones, first from Ja­pan dur­ing the Korean War, when she worked as a ser­vice-club direc­tor for the U.S. Army, and later from Viet­nam.

Mor­ris has al­ways con­sid­ered him­self lib­eral and racially sen­si­tive, but as he learned about Payne’s life and worked with an edi­tor to bal­ance the in­for­ma­tion in the book, which delves into the le­gacy of racial bias in the me­dia, he be­came aware of in­grained lan­guage is­sues that un­der­score and main­tain the very racial bias he was ex­plor­ing. “My edi­tor and I had long con­ver­sa­tions about vet­ting the black­ness is­sues,” Mor­ris ex­plained to Pasatiempo (to which he is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor). “That means a num­ber of things, such as who you iden­tify by race and who you don’t.” For ex­am­ple, he men­tions in the book that in the 1950s Payne was one of three ac­cred­ited African-Amer­i­can mem­bers of the White House press corps, but he doesn’t note that Pres­i­dent Eisen­hower was white.

“Why? In this case, we as­sume peo­ple know enough about his­tory to know Obama is the first black pres­i­dent. But re­mem­ber the old gram­mar rule? If the gen­der is not known, mas­cu­line is dom­i­nant and we were taught to use ‘Ev­ery­one should pick up his book,’” Mor­ris said. “Far more than her black­ness, I was un­aware of some is­sues deal­ing with my white­ness. I brought her into the white world and re­al­ized all the as­sump­tions and pre­sump­tions I had. For in­stance, as a white guy, I’m free to write about what­ever I want. Black writ­ers haven’t been. But I’d never thought about it be­cause I wasn’t con­fronting that is­sue.” In other words, it wasn’t un­til Mor­ris wrote about the life of a black woman that he re­ally un­der­stood that in the United States, “white male” tends to be used as the de­fault for “hu­man be­ing,” which in­forms our per­cep­tions, in­clud­ing about what is con­sid­ered “im­por­tant news.” It is a theme of the book, he said, that Payne was well aware of this.

Payne brought up is­sues that didn’t oc­cur to the white press, and of­ten, even when Pres­i­dent Eisen­hower de­murred, or balked, at a query from her, the is­sue would then be cov­ered by a main­stream news­pa­per — such as the time she asked him about ad­min­is­tra­tion sup­port for a law ban­ning seg­re­ga­tion in in­ter­state travel, and he barked an an­gry, dis­mis­sive re­ply. Head­lines all over the coun­try trum­peted the news of the pres­i­dent’s irked re­ac­tion. “The brusque­ness from the usu­ally af­fa­ble Eisen­hower star­tled the room. Nor was it lost on the re­porters that the pres­i­dent had

just sug­gested that African-Amer­i­cans and their quest for equal­ity were tan­ta­mount to a spe­cial in­ter­est group,” Mor­ris writes.

Many Amer­i­cans be­lieve the me­dia to be in­her­ently un­bi­ased, but the way that civil rights were — and of­ten con­tinue to be — writ­ten about in the white press ver­sus how they are writ­ten about in the black press is a de­ci­sive ex­am­ple of just how flawed this per­cep­tion is. The white press, Mor­ris ex­plained, “tends to por­tray ad­vances in civil rights as mu­nif­i­cent gifts be­ing given to blacks by th­ese won­der­ful whites. Payne ex­pressed that, no, th­ese are rights that be­long to us, that are owed to us, and we’re fight­ing to get them.” She was un­spar­ing in her crit­i­cism of the way Lyn­don John­son and John F. Kennedy gut­ted the most im­por­tant parts of the 1957 Civil Rights Act and didn’t for­give them or com­pletely buy into the later images of th­ese men as he­roes of the civil rights move­ment. Payne didn’t have much pa­tience for politi­cians who used civil rights as a bar­gain­ing chip or who would sac­ri­fice pos­i­tive leg­is­la­tion be­cause they weren’t sure Amer­i­cans were ready for racial equal­ity — a seem­ingly old-fash­ioned and boldly racist at­ti­tude that nev­er­the­less con­tin­ues to sur­face, more than five decades later, in po­lit­i­cal agen­das and me­dia cov­er­age of is­sues of par­tic­u­lar con­cern to African-Amer­i­cans, such as com­mu­nity polic­ing and po­lice bru­tal­ity.

In the 1960s, as bi­og­ra­pher James McGrath Mor­ris was meet­ing his first African-Amer­i­cans at age eight — do­mes­tic ser­vants in his par­ents’ house — Ethel Payne was in her sec­ond decade of cov­er­ing the civil rights move­ment as the Wash­ing­ton cor­re­spon­dent for “The Chicago De­fender,” the pre­mier news­pa­per for African-Amer­i­cans for many decades.

Though it now seems as if all Amer­i­cans were watch­ing in right­eous sol­i­dar­ity from 1955 to 1956 as Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the black cit­i­zens of Mont­gomery, Alabama, boy­cotted the lo­cal bus sys­tem to protest racial seg­re­ga­tion, the fact is that 10 weeks into the boy­cott — which lasted 13 months — nei­ther The Wash­ing­ton Post nor The

New York Times had a re­porter at the scene. Na­tion­ally, the boy­cott had made head­lines only in the black press. Payne, writ­ing in Fe­bru­ary 1956 for The Chicago De­fender, penned the first known ac­count of the boy­cott that drew at­ten­tion to mem­bers of the clergy as the new lead­ers of the civil rights move­ment. While in Alabama cov­er­ing the boy­cott, Payne also re­ported on the in­te­gra­tion of the state uni­ver­sity in Tuscaloosa, where the first black stu­dent to en­roll, Auther­ine Lucy, faced a mob of two thou­sand white pro­test­ers threat­en­ing her with death.

When he in­ter­viewed some of Payne’s friends from the end of her life (she died in 1991), Mor­ris ex­pressed shock and out­rage at the level of dan­ger in­volved in re­port­ing from the South at that time. “They sort of pat­ted my hand and told me, ‘That’s very cute, but that’s what we’ve suf­fered for a hun­dred years,’ ” he said. It was an­other mo­ment of con­fronting his white­ness.

When Payne grad­u­ated from high school at the be­gin­ning of the Great De­pres­sion, there were very few pro­fes­sional roads open to her. Against the odds, she be­came an in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized jour­nal­ist who knew how to use her po­si­tion to ad­vo­cate for a bet­ter world , but the strug­gle to make her voice heard was pro­found. “She was in D.C. at a time when it was still very seg­re­gated. Cabs wouldn’t pick her up. [The N-word] was used on the se­nate floor reg­u­larly,” Mor­ris said. “There were sen­a­tors who wouldn’t talk to her be­cause she was black. In that world, she re­al­ized she couldn’t be ob­jec­tive in the way that jour­nal­ists are thought to be ob­jec­tive. She adopted the cri­te­ria of be­ing fair, and that in­flu­enced me a lot be­cause the more I thought about it, the more this wor­ship­ing of ob­jec­tiv­ity seems al­most like a de­fense mech­a­nism. Fair­ness seems a much harder cri­te­rion to meet, and her cov­er­age of white politi­cians wasn’t ob­jec­tive but it was fair.”

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