This short film brings into focus the riveting life of one of the most significant yet least known figures of the civil rights era—pioneering journalist Ethel Payne, the “First Lady of the Black Press.” For decades, Ethel Lois Payne has been hidden in the shadows of history. Narrated by James McGrath Morris, the author of the first biography of Payne, this video provides a small snippet from this groundbreaking woman’s life, whose rose from a childhood in South Chicago to a career as a journalist and network news commentator, reporting on some of the most crucial events in modern American history
McGrath Morris’ biography Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press is a must read for anyone interested in American journalism, civil rights, women’s history, and black history.
In this groundbreaking biography, celebrated author James McGrath Morris skillfully illuminates the life and accomplishments of pioneering journalist Ethel Lois Payne, while also bringing to the fore the critical role of the black press in the civil rights era. Payne used her journalistic skills as the Washington correspondent for the Chicago Defender to elevate civil rights issues to the national agenda. In the 1950s and 1960s, she raised challenging questions at presidential press conferences about matters of importance to African Americans and the emerging civil rights movement. A self-proclaimed "instrument of change," she publicly prodded President Dwight D. Eisenhower to support desegregation, and her reporting on legislative and judicial civil rights battles enlightened and motivated black readers. At some considerable personal risk, Payne covered such events as the Montgomery bus boycott, the desegregation of the University of Alabama, and the Little Rock school crisis. She also traveled overseas to write about the service of black troops in Vietnam and accompanied American leaders on diplomatic missions to Africa.
President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized Payne's seminal role by presenting her with pens used in the signing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. As a trailblazing black woman in an industry dominated by white men, she capped her career by becoming the first female African American radio and television commentator on a national network, working for CBS.
The white and black presses, operating in parallel worlds, saw events differently. The white press was quick to portray civil rights legislation as munificent gifts bestowed on American blacks, while Payne's reporting focused on the failures of legislation to grant African Americans the equality that rightfully belonged to them. Ethel Payne's life and work offers readers an opportunity to see the historic events of the civil rights era through her eyes.
I have a degree in media studies. When we studied the history of print and radio journalism, my professors covered “the great luminaries in the field.” Looking back at my notebooks, I realize that all of them were white, and all were male. Not one mention of journalists of color, nor of my gender.
Payne stood on the shoulders of those black women who came before her, most notably Alice Allison Dunnigan and Ida Wells-Barnett, crusading anti-lynching journalist and activist.
In 1942 Alice Allison Dunnigan, a sharecropper’s daughter from Kentucky, made her way to the nation’s capitol and a career in journalism that eventually led her to the White House. With Alone atop the Hill, Carol McCabe Booker has condensed Dunnigan’s 1974 self-published autobiography to appeal to a general audience and has added scholarly annotations that provide historical context. Dunnigan’s dynamic story reveals her importance to the fields of journalism, women’s history, and the civil rights movement and creates a compelling portrait of a groundbreaking American.
Dunnigan recounts her formative years in rural Kentucky as she struggled for a living, telling bluntly and simply what life was like in a Border State in the first half of the twentieth century. Later she takes readers to Washington, D.C., where we see her rise from a typist during World War II to a reporter. Ultimately she would become the first black female reporter accredited to the White House; to travel with a U.S. president; credentialed by the House and Senate Press Galleries; accredited to the Department of State and the Supreme Court; voted into the White House Newswomen’s Association and the Women’s National Press Club; and recognized as a Washington sports reporter. A contemporary of Helen Thomas and a forerunner of Ethel Payne, Dunnigan traveled with President Truman on his coast-to-coast, whistle-stop tour; was the first reporter to query President Eisenhower about civil rights; and provided front-page coverage for more than one hundred black newspapers of virtually every race issue before the Congress, the federal courts, and the presidential administration. Here she provides an uninhibited, unembellished, and unvarnished look at the terrain, the players, and the politics in a rough-and-tumble national capital struggling to make its way through a nascent, postwar racial revolution.
“Ida Bell Wells-Barnett was a lioness,” is what I wrote about this extraordinary woman last year for Black Kos. I also featured her in “The Ballot and Black Women” and “They marched and battled for the ballot.”
While she is finally garnering more acclaim and study in academic programs, she is still unknown to many Americans.
Activist and writer Ida B. Wells-Barnett first became prominent in the 1890s because she brought international attention to the lynching of African Americans in the South. Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1862. At the age of 16, she became primary caregiver to her six brothers and sisters, when both of her parents succumbed to yellow fever. After completing her studies Rust College near Holly Springs where her father had sat on the board of trustees before his death, Wells divided her time between caring for her siblings and teaching school. She moved to Memphis, Tennessee in the 1880s.
Wells first began protesting the treatment of black southerners when, on a train ride between Memphis and her job at a rural school, the conductor told her that she must move to the train’s smoking car. Wells refused, arguing that she had purchased a first-class ticket. The conductor and other passengers then tried to physically remove her from the train. Wells returned to Memphis, hired a lawyer, and sued the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company. The court decided in her favor, awarding Wells $500. The railroad company appealed, and in 1887, the Supreme Court of Tennessee reversed the previous decision and ordered Wells to pay court fees. Using the pseudonym “Iola,” Wells began to write editorials in black newspapers that challenged Jim Crow laws in the South. She bought a share of a Memphis newspaper, the Free Speech and Headlight, and used it to further the cause of African American civil rights.
Because of her anti-lynching crusade, her newspaper was firebombed while she was away from Memphis.
After Edward Ward Carmack, editor of the Memphis Commercial, demanded retaliation against "the black wench" for her denunciation of the lynchings, the offices of the Free Speech were demolished. Fortunately, Wells was out of town when the attack occurred, and she did not return to the South for another thirty years.
Filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s documentary The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords covers much of this history:
SOLDIERS WITHOUT SWORDS is the first documentary to provide an in-depth examination of the history and contributions of African American newspapers. Since the early 1800’s Black newspapers have existed in almost every major city in the U.S.
From facilitating the migration of Southern Blacks to northern cities; to recording the social and political events affecting the lives of African Americans; to providing a showcase honoring Black soldiers in World War II, the Black press documented life for millions of people that were otherwise ignored.
The full film is online, but you can watch the trailer below:
The film is divided into five parts:
No Longer Shall Others Speak For Us provides an overview of the growth and influence of the Black press, from the founding of Freedom’s Journal in 1827 to the turn of the century.
Standing Up for the Race examines the role of Black journalists like Chicago Defender publisher Robert Abbott in advancing the "Great Migration" of blacks from the South. The film shows how attempts to ban the sale of the Defender from many southern cities were thwarted by a network of Pullman porters who managed to distribute the paper clandestinely.
A Separate World focuses on the years between 1920 and 1930. According to journalist Abie Robinson, editors, writers, cartoonists and photographers were heroes of the Black community, ". . . because we were the only ones able to write and crusade for the things that were in the hearts of Black people."
Treason? compares the disparate coverage of the mainstream press and the Black press concerning the contributions of African Americans during WWII. This section revisits the nearly forgotten "Double V" campaign spearheaded by the Pittsburgh Courier that linked the struggle against fascism abroad to segregation at home, and nearly resulted in Black publishers being indicted for sedition. The "Double V" campaign help to lay the ground work for the Civil Rights Movement to come.
Putting Itself Out of Business discusses the reasons for the decline of the Black press in the last 30 years, and the residual effect on African American communities.
I realized decades ago that I live in world with a dual consciousness. I live simultaneously in a society where “white” is normative, while at the same time having a solid and deeply rooted identity as a black American. When the term is applied to media, “mainstream” means “white.”
Growing up, I never entered a black household that didn’t have copies of Ebony or Jet on a coffee table. We read newspapers like The New York Times and The Herald Tribune along with The Amsterdam News. Articles in the newest issue of The Crisis were a topic of discussion around the dinner table. It wasn’t until I was grown that I realized that this wasn’t the norm in a majority of white households.
I wonder how many readers here grew up with this dual media exposure?
African-American newspapers have existed in this country since the early 1800’s. The Crisis magazine was founded in 1910.
When W. E. B. Du Bois founded The Crisis in 1910, as the house magazine of the fledgling NAACP, he created what is arguably the most widely read and influential periodical about race and social injustice in U.S. history. Written for educated African-American readers, the magazine reached a truly national audience within nine years, when its circulation peaked at about 100,000. The Crisis's stated mission, like that of the NAACP itself, was to pursue "the world-old dream of human brotherhood" by bearing witness to "the danger of race prejudice" and reporting on "the great problem of inter-racial relations," both at home and abroad. The magazine thus provided a much-needed corrective to the racial stereotypes and silences of the mainstream press—publishing, each month, uplifting accounts of achievements by African Americans, alongside stark accounts of racial discrimination and gruesome reports of lynchings.
The year 1945 saw the founding of Ebony, published by John Harold Johnson—a glossy magazine that was like Life, and Look, but for a black readership that was virtually ignored by the “mainstream.”
Thanks to Google Books, the archives of The Crisis and Ebony are available online.
In recent years most black newspapers have gone out of business:
Many Black newspapers that began publishing in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s went out of business because they could not attract enough advertising and economic decline. They were also victims of their own substantial efforts to eradicate racism and promote civil rights. As of 2002, 200 Black newspapers remained. As of 2010, there has been a resurgence of online African-American news organizations, most notably Black Voice News, The Grio, and Black Voices. With the decline of print media and proliferation of internet access, more and more black news websites are popping up every day.
The internet is now a key source for black news, arts, information, and entertainment, hosting a plethora of black news sites and blogs. But I wonder: Just like those coffee tables that held copies of Ebony in black homes and not white ones—how many not-black cyber citizens regularly read them?
My “dual consciousness” sends me here to Daily Kos every day, as well as to other major news and information blogs that may have a few black writers in the mix. I also read The Root, theGrio, Racism Review, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, and international news sites covering Africa and the Caribbean.
Of course here at Daily Kos we also have Black Kos, which spans the globe from a black perspective. A majority of Black Kos readers are white and in my opinion, that’s a good thing.
My daily queries also cover news and information for and about Native Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latinos. How frequently do you watch, listen to, or read about these underrepresented (or virtually invisible) communities?
Comments are closed on this story.