Oak Park First Fridays/Film Screening: "Ethel Payne, First lady of the Black Press"
Friday, July 06, 2018
The Brickhouse Art Gallery2837 36th St
Sacramento, California 95817
We're celebrating the "A Legacy Continued: The Sacramento Observer" with stories, a film screening of; "Ethel Payne, First Lady of the Black Press," moderated by Khimberly Marshall, photography documenting the history of the Observer by their own photojournalist.
During its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, The Chicago Defender was America’s premier black newspaper. Every issue carried its blazing motto: “American Race Prejudice Must Be Destroyed.”
In his important and often absorbing new book, “Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press,” James McGrath Morris notes that while the circulation of The Defender, a weekly, was about 130,000 in 1920, its reach was vastly wider. Copies filtered across the country, passed from hand to hand.
Few black Americans, especially in the South, dared get it via the mail. The paper was banned in some towns. So its editors worked out an arrangement with Pullman porters. Each week, Mr. Morris writes, “the men would get bundles of The Defender, store them in their personal lockers on the trains, and drop them off at barbershops and churches along their Southern routes.”
Ethel Payne (1911-1991) was the daughter of one such Pullman porter. She grew up in Chicago and longed to be a writer at a time when options were dismally few for black women. She had talent, a big personality and grit. She ultimately became a star reporter for The Defender, and the pre-eminent black female reporter of the civil rights era.
Her story is a terrific one, and Mr. Morris, whose previous books include “Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power” (2010), succeeds in putting it across. As the Defender’s Washington correspondent, Ms. Payne put nettling questions about racial equality to Dwight D. Eisenhower and other presidents, at a time when, as she put it, “It was just unheard of for blacks to be standing up and asking presidents impertinent questions and particularly a black woman.”
She became the first black female radio and television commentator, working for CBS. She was the first black reporter to cover the Vietnam War. She toured China in 1973 with a group that included Susan Sontag. In 2002, a little more than a decade after her death, she appeared on a United States postage stamp.
Mr. Morris charts the arc of Ms. Payne’s career while attending to the human details of her story. She was fun to be around; in Washington, invitations to her dinner parties were prized. She was a sought-after guest as well. At one white-tie diplomatic dinner, she described herself this way: “All gussied up in a high style wig, floating chiffon and a stand-up girdle with sittin’ down shoes.”
One of the best anecdotes in “Eye on the Struggle” takes place at the Bandung Conference, a meeting of African and Asian states, in 1955. It involves Payne’s hair, a metal straightening comb, a missing can of Sterno, a match, a bottle of pure alcohol and the novelist Richard Wright, who was on the scene and ready to help with an emergency salon treatment. (Wright later described this story, somewhat cruelly, though without naming Ms. Payne, in a book he wrote about the conference.)
Payne was the granddaughter of slaves and the fifth child in a large family. When her father died at 46, her family struggled. She was a mediocre student but a big reader. She graduated from a small training college and took evening classes at the Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
She got her break in 1948, when she went to Japan to work as a hostess for a military services social club there. Payne allowed a Defender reporter to read her journal and take it back to Chicago with him. From it, the editors cobbled together an article about race relations that ran on the front page under this headline: “Says Japanese Girls Playing GIs for Suckers, ‘Chocolate Joe’ Used, Amused, Confused.” She was on her way.
Back in the states, and hired by the newspaper, she wrote articles about adoption by black families and about voter registration drives, among many other topics. She traveled widely, and The Defender played up her trips in its pages, calling her its “globe-trotting reporter.”
She faced a great deal of racism and often danger. While traveling in the South, she and other black journalists could not find hotels that would accommodate them and slept in private homes.
She became nearly as newsworthy as the stories she covered. She interviewed Martin Luther King Jr., Senator John F. Kennedy, Gen. William C. Westmoreland and Nelson Mandela. When Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s staff was putting together a press pool for his trip to several African countries in 1976, Kissinger said to an aide: “You know that woman who gives me hell on CBS? Let’s ask her.”
Ms. Payne was, unapologetically, an advocacy journalist. The NAACP, for example, helped her frame some of the questions she posed to Eisenhower. She also made errors in judgment. She regretted not criticizing the Vietnam War while covering black soldiers fighting in it. She remained devoted to Winnie Mandela after many began to pull away from her.
Ms. Payne was a better journalist than writer, if the samples of her prose Mr. Morris provides are any indication. She could be purple. But then, Mr. Morris’s own book is so strewn with clichés that it is sometimes painful to read. Brickbats are hurled, favor is curried, guns are stuck to, the kibosh is put on things, aces are discovered up sleeves.
I fear I’m becoming a bore on the topic of clichés. But it’s getting worse, not better, out there. What is wrong with editors that they can’t do writers that simplest of favors, that of pointing out their self-mutilating phrases? Perhaps you can’t get every one (though you can try), and some clichés are worse than others. The tone of Mr. Morris’s book is unnecessarily lowered by these phrases. Each, for the reader, is like biting down on a stone.
Yet “Eye on the Struggle” reads, and it’s a deep pleasure to meet Ethel Payne. “We are soul folks,” she declared in 1967, “and I am writing for soul brothers’ consumption.” Her own soul beams from this book.