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Legacy of ‘first lady of the Black Press’

JAZELLE HUNT | 8/3/2015, 11:59 a.m.
When James McGrath Morris set out to write his latest book, he didn’t know how timely it would be. When ...
Ethel Payne NNPA

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – When James McGrath Morris set out to write his latest book, he didn’t know how timely it would be. When Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press hit shelves, Essence magazine had just released its Black Lives Matter issue. The Justice Department had closed its investigation into Trayvon Martin’s murder, with no charges. Mainstream media was scrambling to report on police violence and systemic racial ills, and Black Americans took much of this coverage to task for its racist, shallow or negligent portrayals.

“We get these events filtered through the mainstream media. The mainstream media is still very White. I don’t mean they don’t hire people of color … it’s a perspective issue. The fact the media had a debate over the use of the word ‘terrorist’ [for Dylann Roof] in South Carolina is an indication,” Morris said.

“So what I found is that Ethel Payne’s story, her perspective, her form of journalism 50 years ago, still has relevance today. Because while we may have made leaps in terms of segregation … the dominant filter today remains a White-controlled media.”

Payne was poking holes in that filter at a time when the White majority fought against the tide of sustained agitation to secure civil and human rights for all. At the Chicago Defender, Payne was the eyes and ears of the Civil Rights Movement, reporting from its front lines in the Deep South, press conferences at the White House, and iconic rulings at the Supreme Court. In 1953, she became the third Black person to join the White House Press Corps, and was known for persistently prodding President Dwight D. Eisenhower on Jim Crow laws and desegregation efforts.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, she jetted around the globe for international stories such as Black soldiers in Vietnam and the Nigerian Civil War, becoming the first Black woman to be a full-time foreign correspondent. Yet, she always returned for on-the-ground coverage of moments that would become history, such the start of the Montgomery bus boycott and the desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas, Central High School.

In 1972, Payne joined CBS and became the first Black woman commentator at a major network. In 2002, she was memorialized on a postage stamp.

With 40 years of tireless journalism and a legacy honed at a Black-owned newspaper, Payne earned her reputation as the “first lady of the Black Press.”

“When The New York Times or The Washington Post would report on the passage of the Civil Rights Act of ‘64 or the Voting Rights Act of ‘65, the tone of the articles was that these were munificent gifts being given to a disenfranchised people,” Morris said.

“Whereas, if you opened up the Afro American or the Pittsburgh Courier or Chicago Defender, what you were seeing was coverage of the fact that these were victories, hard-won victories by people who laid their lives on the line. Nothing was being given. In fact, [Payne’s] coverage often highlighted the inadequacies of these pieces of legislation.”