African-American journalist Ethel Payne was born in 1911, the granddaughter of slaves and the fifth daughter in a large family. Her father, who worked in a stockyard and was a Pullman porter, died when Ethel was 46 and Ethel’s mother became a domestic worker to support the family. There was little money for education so after high school, Payne began putting herself through junior college and then Garrett Biblical Institute.
In 1941, she met A. Philip Randolph, a prominent leader in the civil rights movement and a labor organizer for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Her experiences with Randolph would inspire her to eventually cover the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the desegregation of the University of Alabama, and the 1963 March on Washington.
Payne got her first taste of journalism in the 1940s while working as a hostess at an American military social club in Japan. At that time, President Truman had ordered military quarters and clubs to be desegregated, but leaders were defying those orders and keeping facilities segregated. While at the club, she met a reporter from the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper, and allowed him to read her journal examining her experiences there; her notes described discriminatory practices in the military and the poverty experienced by many Japanese people after World War II. Her accounts were published in serial form on the front page of the Defender.
During the early 20th century, the Chicago Defender was America’s leading black newspaper, with the motto, “American Race Prejudice Must Be Destroyed.” In his book on Payne, Eye on the Struggle, author James Morris notes that the circulation of the weekly magazine was at least 130,000, but it actually had a wider reach because copies were shared from person-to-person. At that time, it would have been frowned upon to buy copies of the paper in the South, so editors worked with Pullman porters to stow them in their train cars and drop the papers off at barbershops and churches on their Southern routes.
In 1951, Ethel moved to Chicago as an employee of the Defender—eventually becoming the paper’s sole Washington, D.C. reporter. She was one of only three African Americans who had credentials in the White House press corps. Payne was known to relentlessly question President Eisenhower on race issues and segregation, to the point where Eisenhower virtually stopped calling on her for questions; one of his angry responses to her made national front page news. According to the Washington Post, the House press secretary looked for ways to have her accreditation revoked, including investigating her income tax returns. Ethel said, “It was just unheard of for blacks to be standing up and asking presidents impertinent questions, and particularly a black woman.”
During this time, Payne was one of the most diligent and vigilant reporters covering civil rights issues—becoming known as the “First Lady of the Black Press.” During the 1950s and 60s, she focused heavily on desegregation efforts, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Inspired by her friendship with A. Philip Randolph, she wrote a notable series of articles on the South during the civil rights era called, “The South at the Crossroads.” Ethel said that she had a “box seat to history” and, due to her prominence in the black press, was invited by President Lyndon Johnson to visit the White House when he signed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Understanding the connection between civil rights and international affairs, she began to travel widely. She visited Bandung, Indonesia, for the Asian-African Summit and accompanied Richard Nixon to Ghana, witnessing the first meeting of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nixon. The Defender sent Payne to Vietnam in 1966 to cover African-American troops, where she was the first black woman to cover the armed forces. She was also a correspondent during the Nigerian civil war and the International Women’s Year Conference in Mexico City. Ethel accompanied Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on a six-nation tour of Africa. She earned a formidable reputation for her interviews with Senator John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela.
Payne became the first African-American female radio and television commentator on a national network when she was hired in 1972 by CBS. She worked on the program “Spectrum” from 1972 until 1978 and appeared on “Matters of Opinion” until 1982. She remained an activist journalist, working for the release of the long-imprisoned future South African president Nelson Mandela. In 1988 the District of Columbia Women’s Hall of Fame inducted to Payne into their ranks; she also won awards from the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs and the National Association for Black Journalists. Ethel died at age 79 in 1991. She did not live to see a U.S. postage stamp bear her likeness—one of four female journalists to receive the honor.
Throughout her career, Ethel Payne made a point to be an activist journalist, advocating for civil rights and women’s rights. Prior to her death, she told an interviewer, “I stick to my firm, unshakeable belief that the black press is an advocacy press, and that I, as a part of that press, can’t afford the luxury of being unbiased . . . when it comes to issues that really affect my people, and I plead guilty, because I think that I am an instrument of change.” For her advocacy at home and abroad, Ethel Payne is one of our #womenwhoinspire.
Lead image credit: NPR