An act of re-discovery
Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black ress by James McGrath Morris
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.”