Ethel L. Payne

Jul 26th, 2011 | By | Category: Journalism & Law
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Ethel L. Payne1911-1991  Ethel L. Payne combined a passionate concern for the rights of black people in all parts of the world with a talent for investigative reporting and writing. She became the leading African American journalist of her time, and a tireless supporter of civil rights.

With the Help of a Diary

Payne was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1911. Her grandfather was a freed slave; her father, who moved to Chicago from Memphis, Tennessee as part of a great black migration, was a Pullman Porter. Their southwest Chicago community of Englewood was a black enclave surrounded by white neighborhoods. Payne was the fifth of six children, with four sisters and one brother who was chronically frail. He was often bullied by other boys, and Payne would leap into the fight to protect him. Her father died when she was 12 years old, leaving the family without financial means. Her mother cleaned houses and eventually took in lodgers, with two or three people sleeping in each of the bedrooms, but she still managed to encourage Payne’s early talent for writing.

At her urging, Payne attended Lindblom High School in a white district. She had to walk through a segregated neighborhood every day, enduring taunts, epithets, and rocks thrown her way. She excelled in English and history; an English teacher recognized her flair, and urged her to write essays and stories, and even to submit one story to a magazine. It was published, as were other pieces in the school newspaper, but at this point Payne’s ambition was to become a lawyer, “…just as I was so fierce about protecting my brother, I had a strong, strong, deeply embedded hatred of bullies…. So I said, ‘Well, I want to grow up and be a lawyer, and I want to defend the rights of the poor people.’ ” Due to financial constraints, she attended Crane Junior College briefly, and then a division of Garrett Biblical Institute. Her application to the University of Chicago Law School was refused, partly due to racial discrimination.

Payne worked as a matron in a girls reform school and as a Chicago Public Library clerk, during which time she became active in local civil rights affairs and was appointed by the Governor of Illinois to serve on the state’s Human Rights Commission. Seeking adventure beyond her Chicago life, she then responded to a Red Cross advertisement to serve American forces in post-war Japan. Beginning on the sea voyage she kept a diary, which she gave while in Japan to a reporter from the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper. It was published in the U.S. as an expose of illegal and immoral practices within the military. The editor of the Defender was sufficiently impressed to hire Payne as a reporter.

Washington, Africa, Asia

Payne began writing full-time for the Defender in 1951, and would continue with the newspaper for 27 years. She was recognized by the Illinois Press Association in 1952 as having written the best news story of that year for her work on a crisis affecting adoption of African American babies. In 1954, she became chief of the newspaper’s Washington bureau, and continued her focus on civil rights issues. She covered such seminal events as the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the forced desegregation efforts at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas; demonstrations in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama; and 1963’s epic March on Washington. She summarized much of this experience in a series entitled “The South at the Crossroads,” chronicling the region’s violent entry into the era of civil rights. At the same time, she was witnessing and coping with Washington’s racial and gender discrimination, as one of the few black women reporters of that segregationist era. She overcame an innate shyness to act as an aggressive and relentless investigative reporter, and a pointed questioner in press conferences; President Dwight Eisenhower was known to ignore her queries. Her purview broadened when the Defender’s editor-in-chief asked her to assume editorial responsibilities in 1957.

Her concern for oppressed blacks extended overseas beginning with her coverage of the Asian-African Conference in Indonesia in 1955. Payne journeyed with then Vice-President Richard Nixon to the independence ceremonies for the African nation of Ghana in 1957, and covered other wars, events, and revolutions in countries such as Zaire, Senegal, and Nigeria. In 1966 and 1967, she reported first hand on African American troops in Vietnam. She accompanied Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on a six-nation tour of Africa in 1976.

In 1972, Payne was engaged by the CBS Broadcasting Company as a radio and then a television commentator, becoming the first African American woman to serve in those capacities. She would continue with CBS for the next decade. In the early 1980s she was an advocate for the release of Nelson Mandela, the South African leader, from his internment in prison, and campaigned actively on his behalf. After leaving the Defender, she began writing a nationally syndicated column that continued until her death, while traveling to Africa to participate in anti-apartheid demonstrations and to tour refugee camps in Somalia, Sudan, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Payne died of a heart attack in 1991 at the age of 79. Her innumerable honors include a 1967 award from the Capital Press Club for her Vietnam reporting; the Africare Distinguished Service Award, bestowed in 1983; and in 1987 the TransAfrica African Freedom Award. She offered her own pointed epitaph in these words: “I fought all my life to bring about change, to correct the injustices and the inequities in the system.”


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