First Lady of Black Press: Ethel Payne’s legacy of telling the truth with tenacity

Ethel Payne had a question for President Eisenhower that he didn’t want to hear. Payne was one of only three African-Americans in the White House press corps in 1954. She had made a name for herself shortly after arriving in Washington by speaking up for Howard University’s choir during a presidential press conference. The choir had been invited to perform at the Lincoln Day Dinner in February 1954, only to be turned away by police at two different entrances. The incident had been ignored by the white press until Payne brought it to the president’s attention. Eisenhower’s reply — likely just a mix-up, but he would be the first to apologize if it had been discrimination — made headlines from coast to coast. In the months that followed, Payne reported on the McCarthy hearings, Eisenhower’s civil rights record during his first 15 months in office (a glowing assessment) and the Brown v. Board of Education decision for The Chicago Defender. Eisenhower continued to call on Payne from time to time, though he admitted privately that he thought her questions, which were usually related to racial issues, were “foolish.” In July 1954, he finally lost his temper when she asked if the administration would support a law to ban segregation in interstate travel. “Well, that just touched a nerve, and he became very angry,” Payne told an interviewer in 1987. “Oh, he was so angry. He drew himself up to his full military posture, and he barked at me, and he said, ‘What makes you think I'm going to do anything for any special-interest group? I'm the president of all the people, and I'm going to do what I think is best for all the people.’ Well, his answer startled even the press corps, you know, and I was taken aback. I thought I had asked a perfectly legitimate question.” Eisenhower’s press secretary, Jim Hagerty, retaliated by accusing Payne of violating the rules of the White House Correspondents Association by doing freelance work for a labor group. Payne would be given only two more opportunities to address Eisenhower during his remaining six years in office. She also incurred the ire of some members of the African-American press who accused her of being an embarrassment. Even her own mother called to say that she shouldn’t be angering the president. However, at a time when the white press was largely ignoring the emerging struggle for civil rights, Payne insisted that her questions had value. “They were talking about the Middle East or whatever, you know. Everything was more important than civil rights. They didn't pay that much attention to it. But then suddenly, civil rights began to be the big issue,” Payne told the interviewer. Payne, who became known as the First Lady of the Black Press, was 39 years old when she became a reporter. Thirteen years later, President Lyndon Johnson handed her one of the more than 70 pens he used to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Besides her extensive coverage of the civil rights movement, Payne also reported from Indonesia, Vietnam, China and more than a dozen emerging African nations. Toward the end of her career, she made the switch from reporter to commentator and then columnist but never lost her tenacity. At 73, she was arrested for protesting apartheid after being admitted to the South African embassy in Washington.

A few years later, she tried to get Marion Barry, Washington D.C.’s African-American mayor, to acknowledge wrongdoing two years before he was arrested by the FBI. Payne died in 1991. I was introduced to her life and work last year through “Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press” by James McGrath Morris. It is recommended reading not only during Black History Month but as a reminder of the responsibilities of a free press. In the 1987 interview, Payne was asked if she ever had a problem drawing the line between her roles as reporter and advocate. For Payne, there was no distinction. “You see, if you have lived through the black experience in this country, you feel that every day you're assaulted by the system itself. You are either acquiescent and you go along with the system, which I think is wrong, or else you just rebel, and you kick against it. That was just my feeling, that somebody had to do the fighting; somebody had to speak up,” Payne said.