EYE ON THE STRUGGLE: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James McGrath Morris. Amistad, 466 pp., $27.99.
James McGrath Morris follows up his excellent 2010 biography of Joseph Pulitzer with an equally informative portrait of a much less familiar name: Ethel Payne. As Washington correspondent for the black-owned Chicago Defender, Payne kept a sharp eye on the federal government's actions on civil rights, while keeping her readers up to date about the struggle in the South.
Nearly 40 by the time she went to D.C. for the Defender, Payne had a long history of civil rights activism in her native Chicago, as well as jobs at a public library and as the assistant director of an Army service club in Japan. Her midlife move into journalism came via the 1950 publication in the Defender of her articles on liaisons between African-American soldiers and Japanese women.
Morris spotlights the important role that the Defender played in African-American life. "It was America's black newspaper," he writes, with the majority of its circulation outside Chicago. Southern readers in particular relied on the Defender for news that would never be printed in the region's white periodicals.
One of only three African-American reporters granted access to White House press conferences, Payne realized that her questions could direct the mainstream media's attention to civil rights issues President Dwight Eisenhower preferred to duck. One pointed 1954 query about a ban on segregation in interstate travel prompted a brusque response from the normally affable Eisenhower and made Payne's reputation.
Morris credits Payne with recognizing the important shift in leadership of the civil rights movement from labor leaders and lawyers to ministers. He also notes her pioneering coverage of the battle by people of color across the globe for independence and equality. (She was less prescient in her 1967 dispatches from Vietnam, admitting later that she was wrong to focus almost exclusively on the improved status of black soldiers.) He depicts Payne as a staunch feminist who in her 70s regretfully attributed her lifelong single state to black men's unease with successful black women.
Payne's often stormy association with the Defender ended in 1977, but she continued to write a syndicated column for what was left of the black press -- decimated, ironically, by the new willingness of white-owned media to hire African-Americans. In 1990, she traveled to Soweto to interview the newly released Nelson Mandela. One year later, she was found dead on the floor of her Washington apartment.
Morris' lively portrait captures the zest of this long and full life. It pays tribute to a committed reporter who covered the historic quest for racial equality from the point of view of those on the front lines.