Ethel Payne, First Lady of the Black Press

>> From the Library of Congress in Washington, DC >> Guy Lamolinara: Good afternoon everyone and thanks for joining us today for our Books and Beyond I’m Guy Lamolinara and I’m from the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress The Center for the Book is a division of the Library that promotes books, reading, libraries and literacy and we also administer here at the library the young reader center in the Jefferson building and poetry and literature center, which is also in the Jefferson building and which recently named a new poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera Additionally, we administer the Library of Congress’ literacy awards and will be announcing new winners this fall in October The way we carry out our mission nationwide is with the assistance of our affiliated centers for the book We have a center for the book in every state in Washington, DC And if you’re traveling to the Virgin Islands I recommend that you visit the Virgin Islands Center for the Book, they will greet you very warmly there We also have a partnership of 80 like-minded organizations and they play an important role in helping us fulfill our mission as well We also are a big part of the National Book Festival, which this year is September 5th in the Washington Convention Center and I urge you to attend that if you’ve never attended before, it’s a great event And you can find out more about it at LOC.gov/bookfest Before we get started I ask that you please turn off all your electronic devices And I need to let you know that we’re filming this for a webcast, so if you ask a question you will become part of that webcast And those webcasts are available on our website which is read.gov and you can find more than 200 of those webcasts on that site and they cover a broad range of topics and subjects So pretty much any kind of topic you’re interested in you will find on that webcast site I should tell you that today’s author’s book will be for sale at the entrance to this room And following the presentation he will sign the book at the table located at the back of the room And you’ll also get a chance to talk to him more about his work The chief criterion that we use in selecting books for our series is that there must be a strong connection with the Library of Congress and that usually means in most cases that the writer did research here, which is certainly the case with our author today And today’s author presentation by the way is cosponsored with our manuscript division, which brought this to us So thank you for doing that And with us from the manuscript division is Adrienne Cannon who is the Afro-American history and culture specialist for the division and she has been in that role since 1996 Her duties include developing and promoting the division’s African-American collections and providing reference services to researchers She helped strengthen the library’s unparalleled resources for the study of 20th-century civil rights movement and the acquisition of the papers of Jackie Robinson, Louis Martin, Leon Sullivan, James Foreman, Herbert Hill and Roger Wilkins Adrienne also was the lead curator for a current exhibition that I really urge you to go see, it’s the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a long struggle for freedom And she was the curator of the 2010 online presentation NAACP Century in the Fight for Freedom Adrienne was a co-lead curator for a 2004 exhibition With an Even Hand, Brown versus Board F50 Adrienne came to library from a position as associate curator in the Special Collections Department at the University of Virginia Library She also worked for the Smithsonian Institution and the African-American Museum in Philadelphia and she is a graduate of Oberlin College and Brown University Please welcome Adrienne Cannon who will introduce our speaker [ Applause ] >> Adrienne Cannon: Good afternoon and thank you Guy for that gracious introduction It’s my pleasure to introduce James McGrath Morris who will discuss his new best-selling biography, Eye on the Struggle, Ethel Payne, The First Lady of Black Press Ethel Payne was the Washington correspondent for the Chicago Defender and syndicated columnist with Sengstacke and Afro-American newspaper chains She made history as the first African-American woman

to be included in the White House press corps, become a radio and television commentator on a national network CBS, and cover the Vietnam War She was respected for her coverage of civil rights and international affairs, but not widely known Ethel Payne was as professor and author Paula Giddings observed quote, a pioneer who experienced the challenges but little of the glory that comes with the title With this book her legacy is assured unquote.” Khalil Gibran Mohammed noted in his review for the New York times quote, Morris has written a fast-paced, engrossing biography weaving the details of Payne’s personal and infinitely intriguing professional life against the backdrop of 20th-century race relations, the civil rights movement and Cold War anti-colonialism In the Washington Post book review Elizabeth Varon commended quote Morris’ research on Payne as meticulous and exhaustive The biography draws not only on her writings and recollections, but also on those of her colleagues, employers, readers, rivals, students, family and friends Mr. Morris conducted much of his research in the manuscript division, which is the home of approximately 63 million primary source documents of American history and culture spanning the colonial period to the present The manuscript division holds the papers of more than 200 reporters, editors and publishers Counted among these holdings are the papers of Ethel Payne, we have the principal collection of Ethel Payne papers Also the papers of Ruby Black, William Safire, Mary McGrory, Hendrik Smith, Eric Sevareid, Nancy Dickerson, Irving R. Levine, Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Henry Luce and Clare Booth Luce, Katharine Graham, Louis Martin and Joseph Pulitzer Mr. Morris is the author of the claimed biography Pulitzer, A Life in Politics, Print in Power which booklist placed in its 2010 list of the 10 best biographies Mr. Morris presented that biography at a Books and Beyond event in 2010 and also at the Library of Congress National Book Festival His other books include the Rose Man of Sing-Sing, A True Tale of Life, Murder and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism, a Washington Post best book of the year in 2004, Jailhouse Journalism, the Fourth Estate Behind Bars, and Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and the Plot to Kill Henry Clay Flick He is currently writing the Ambulance Driver’s Hemingway and Dos Passos, Literary Lives and War in Peace which will be published in 2017 by Da Capo Press Mr. Morris is the host of Collected Words, a radio show produced by Collected Works Bookstore and Cafe that airs on KVSP He is also the editor of the Biographer’s Craft, a monthly online newsletter and one of the founders of the Biographers International Organization Please join me in welcoming James McGrath Morris [ Applause ] >> James McGrath Morris: That was a surprising honor, I hear praises all the time about the collections you brought here And so when you were sitting next to me just chatting I had no idea you were going to say all these nice things about me, thank you I’ve learned my lesson the last time I gave one of these talks here at the Library of Congress was the morning after Snowmageddon, do you remember that? And so I had a real challenge getting here, getting down the streets This time my challenge was getting here not looking like I had been in a swimming pool So I parked at Union Station, took off my jacket and walked really slowly It is doubly fun and a little nerve-racking to speak here The pleasure comes from the fact that this institution has so lovingly cared for Ethel Payne’s papers And if it weren’t for the Library of Congress’ care this book couldn’t have been written The fear factor comes when I speak in Washington and Chicago invariably there are people who knew Ethel Payne in the audience, so that certainly puts me on my toes I want to start the story that I introduce you

to Ethel Payne in February of 1954 Obviously, a significant year because in a few months Brown v. Board is going to come down from the Supreme Court But on that day Ethel Payne is an angry soul She’s really furious and she’s on her way to this building, the old executive office building And she particularly wants to speak to this ma Eisenhower had been in the White House for a year and Republicans were just so happy It was the first time since the depression that a Republican inhabited the White House and as you know, control of the White House means a lot of appointments, a resurgence for that particular party And so the Republicans were gathering around the country for their Lincoln Day dinners Lincoln of course being a person of central importance to Republicans when Lincoln’s birthday comes around from small courthouses in the Midwest to Washington DC there are Lincoln Day gatherings like this And this one was held in the old Uline not auditorium, but you know a building the one that is long gone And they’d invited three choirs to come and perform Two were from white private universities in the south and the third choir was a choir from Howard University The choir from Howard University’s bus was banned and blocked from entering into the facility Now I was born in Washington and anyone who knew Washington back then would’ve understood exactly why it was the case The only group of black kids approaching the building somehow couldn’t get in So Ethel Payne was furious about this She was also furious about the fact that they had a black face performance during this ceremony and she had already written to the Republicans about this But now she wanted to come to one of Eisenhower’s press conferences to take it up with the man himself He had been the speaker, he’s the head of the Republican Party what does he have to say about what went on over the weekend at the Lincoln Day event And how did she get to do that, how did she get to be in the White House press corps to ask that question? Well Ethel Payne was then the Washington correspondent for the Chicago Defender, the most widely circulated and significantly important African-American newspaper at the time Now often when I give these talks or interview people talk about whether I discovered Ethel Payne And it’s an uncomfortable moment because Ethel Payne didn’t need any discovering The truth of the matter is that our segregation from that period in a sense continues in our history That just like many African-American institutions the black press operated in complete invisibility to white America But it’s a story press it goes all the way back to 1827 with the Freedom Journal of the Baltimore Afro-American Many of these papers that, you know, valiantly crusaded not only to end slavery, but to work against Jim Crow to end segregation And Ethel Payne had a particularly lovely connection to the paper because her dad was a Pullman porter You’re seeing a photograph of Pullman porters Well Pullman porters played an interesting role in the life of the Chicago Defender If you’re unfamiliar with the Chicago Defender do not think of it as merely a Chicago newspaper any more than we might think of the New York Times as merely a New York paper Chicago Defender was circulated nationally after it started in 1905, but to get the Chicago Defender in some southern counties was not only illegal where there were actually laws against reading and circulating the Chicago Defender But more seriously it could involve the loss of life You did not want to be seen as an African-American in the south with a copy of the Chicago Defender sticking out your back pocket So you were not going to subscribe to it by mail Yet Pullman porters who traveled the nation would then take bundles, Chicago being the nerve center of the rail system, would take bundles of the paper south with them and leave them in towns and they would be set up in the barbershops of the towns as a weekly then So when the men came in to have their Saturday shave or haircut they could pick up a copy of the Defender and take it back home And it was read by at least six or seven different people after that Well Ethel Payne’s dad was a Pullman porter Now I don’t know if he carried the papers too, but I’ve often loved that connection But being a Pullman porter also offered certain advantages She and her dad and her mom settled in a part of Southside Chicago called West Englewood West Englewood is different than the rest of Southside Chicago Here’s a picture of Ethel at her birth And here’s a picture of their house and those people who are from Chicago in this audience now I’m petrified because there’s an H in the name of her street, but it’s pronounced Troop Street What was significant is that he could afford to buy a house Very few African Americans could buy houses at that point Those Pullman porter jobs and post office jobs were the best to have But more significantly than owning the house West Englewood was a very

different community in Southside Chicago Payne described it as being an island in a sea of whiteness, meaning that all the neighborhoods on all four sides of West Englewood were white The significance of that because segregation Chicago was done through economic means, through social means, but not by law If you were in that school district you could walk to the school, so she was in white school districts Now isn’t that white schools were necessarily better than black schools, although in many cases that could be the case But more significantly, she lived next door to Lynn Bloom High School Lynn Bloom High School was the jewel in the crown of the white school system in Chicago So it wasn’t she was just going to a white school she was getting to go to the best high school in Chicago And early on when I was doing this research somebody had told me that Ethel Payne had had Ernest Hemingway’s teacher as an English teacher at Lynn Bloom High School Now I’m trained as a journalist and my editor always said to me, if your mother says she loves you check it out So I operate from a position of, you know, critical thinking or cynicism Well, it turns out that in fact was the case But what was more significant for me wasn’t that I had now a great anecdote is how did she get to be there Why had she left Oak Park to come and teach at Lynn Bloom? Because when Lynn Bloom was opened right after the Chicago riots in 1919 it was simply the best school to be in So any teacher her caliber which gladly move And I use that because I want you to understand how significant getting to go to Lynn Bloom was It’s a school that takes up an entire block it looks like a college Not only was it built in such an important fashion, but it attracted the best teachers Now a little moment of social justice here When Ethel Payne went to Lynn Bloom she was allowed to write some articles for the school paper, at least one that I know of, maybe some more But she made it clear that just even the thought of asking to be on the staff of this school which was 99.9% white was out of the question So her journalistic achievements there were never recognized Well I was invited to come to Lynn Bloom and speak and the journalism room has now been renamed the Ethel Payne Journalism Center And I love the idea of succeeding generations of kids coming in with their smart phones and saying, who’s this Payne fellow assuming it’s a guy looking her up and discovering who she is and thus being inspired to perhaps do the same kind of journey that she did That’s her graduating from high school When she graduated from high school she went on to get some various forms of education She went to Crane Community College, which is now Malcolm X Community College She went to Garrett, which was — it actually had a long name then it was called the Mission School for Social Training and something else and rather It was a religiously-based free college that was opened to blacks and whites to basically teach you to be a social worker or a missionary She used that training to work in a corrections facility for a while, but she couldn’t get work She couldn’t get the work that she wanted She did publish in Abbott’s Monthly which was the premier black magazine of the time in which Richard Wright published his first short story at the same time Ethel Payne was publishing her friction, a remarkable achievement But to get a professional job, particularly one that involved writing in Chicago was as rare as a warm day in winter in that city Seven out of 10 African-American women according to a labor census I found who had a job in Chicago at that time worked as domestic servants So Payne looked quite far away for a job She had heard that they needed service club employees in occupied Japan in 1948 Now if you remember it’s like USO there were these clubs all around the world for troops And you’re going to say 1948 Of course, Truman has desegregated the military through his order Well, there was this General MacArthur in Japan who had a habit of never listening to his president, his commander-in-chief As you know, that ends up one of the reasons he didn’t get to keep his job So he had no intention of disaggregating the troops And if I remember I’ll tell you a funny story I found in your archives about it But Ethel Payne got a job then as a service club hostess to go to Japan and leave Chicago and work in a service club Now this is an extraordinary journey, I mean she’s leaving Southside Chicago to go halfway around the world to work with troops There’s a photograph of her with a group of young black troops about to go into Tokyo and here she is organizing a birthday party So many things happened to her and the other soldiers there For many of them it was the first time to live in a society without the kinds of segregations they had at home One and I won’t quote it exactly right, but it’s in my book right here But one soldier wrote back and said, you know, I’m not a Negro here

Now the Japanese are xenophobic and they’re not wild about foreigners, but they didn’t have the kind of racism that the southern troop leaders certainly did So as soon as they left the confines of their base they experienced a kind of life that was very different and it changed a lot of their viewpoint of the United States when they came back But one of the things Ethel Payne observed while she was there in the destitute days of Japan’s occupancy was that a lot — there were a lot of single Japanese women either widows or young women And remember it’s a very destitute country who were quite eager to enjoy the economic might that the young American white and black soldiers had And so they dated quite freely the American troops Well black soldiers also dated Japanese women This created a whole new problem because it created like as you know the result of dating often in those periods were children And these mixed-race orphans, I mean these mixed-race children became orphans because the Japanese women rejected them because they were partially African-American, sometimes actually engaged in infanticide or just abandoned them and they ended up in an orphanage From the point of view of the military this was another horror because remember most of the military command come from southern states where the idea of any form of communication between an African-American and a woman outside of the African-American race was a crime And so they viewed Japanese women almost in the sense as being white and having this relationship So these poor children were completely abandoned and ignored And Ethel Payne took a great interest in writing about them and learning about them She’d taken an interest in everything in Japan, but she had no place to publish it So in a sense I like to think that her diary became her place of publication She went to see the war tribunals, she wrote about it She went to learn about these poor orphans and wrote about it Well the Korean War broke out and the only way you could get to the Korean War as a reporter was to come through Japan, that’s where the central headquarters were So Alex Wilson of the Chicago Defender, James Hicks from the Baltimore Afro-American came to write Because remember the troops are segregated so their conduct in the war is a big story for black newspapers in the United states virtually ignored by the white papers in the states And they were facing some unusual problems since the black troops couldn’t be relieved by white soldiers they weren’t getting relieved at the same rate on the front lines And if you remember your history of the Korean War it’s not going well for the first few months And so and let’s not forget these are kids essentially 18 19-year-olds, kids facing the barrels of North Korean rifles So a lot of them fled the front lines They were, I shouldn’t say lines, but a fair number And they were immediately court-martialed with a potential of being executed for their actions Thurgood Marshall came to defend them, he was then a young lawyer with the NAACP It took him two tries to win permission from General MacArthur to come And here’s the little story, it’s in an endnote inside my book if you want to get it completely right because I’ll probably screw it up a little bit, but I found it downstairs in the manuscript room He’s having a conversation with MacArthur outside of his building and it’s one of these typical black-and-white power discussions of that time where Marshall says something like, you know, there’s this black soldier who’s killed more people as a sniper than any white soldier now why he can’t he be doing this And there’s a soldier who has this, you know going through the whole list and McArthur kept saying, no I can’t find anyone that’s good enough What about this and no, I can’t find anyone that’s good enough And the band comes out, it’s all white and McArthur says, God I just love the music of that band And I wish I had it in front of you because I won’t get it quite right Marshall turns to him and says, now you’re not going to say to me Mr. General that you couldn’t find a Negro who could blow a horn as well as these guys I couldn’t get it in the book, but my editor allowed me to sneak it into the end notes So Ethel Payne this is her upon return to Chicago at one point wearing her Japanese clothes She meets with Alec Wilson and James Hicks, these reporters at the press club in Japan and tells them about this fraternization between the soldiers and these poor orphans that have been stranded And Alex Wilson says, can I borrow your diary and as a result the Chicago Defender publishes the first of two byline pieces by Ethel Payne It says, Japan girls playing GIs for sucker says fate that awaits war babies is tragedy of yank Oriental unions Jet Magazine gets into it with a photograph of these poor kids who are being taunted by other kids and being called half-breed Americans Well the story was a sensation back home Her sister placed a cross specific call to her saying, do you realize you’re on the front page of the Defender

It also got her into a lot of trouble because as you can imagine the central command in Japan was not happy with this kind of coverage So they yanked her from her job, they put her a dead-end desk job and MacArthur before he left Japan after defending their soldiers got her out of trouble Well the Defender true to its word having got her deeply into trouble offered her a job and she headed back to Chicago to work for the Defender Now let’s not think that the Defender is being merely charitable Louis Martin, the editor, and others there clearly knew that Ethel Payne was a journalist She had a keen eye for stories what she didn’t have was training She’d taken a couple courses on writing at [inaudible], but she was not trained as a journalist And I was on a radio show one day and the host said something I wish he had told me this before I had written the book because I would have put it in it He said that reading her struck him that she was much like a jazz artist, learning in the band and in the playing, but not in the schools So she came back to Chicago, worked for the Chicago Defender Here’s a picture of her with Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois, two times candidate for President of the United States I assume you all know quip about why he lost Somebody said to him once you’re the thinking man’s candidate for president He said yes that was the problem And she’s really doing well, she’s writing terrific coverage in Chicago She attracts the attention of other papers One paper offers her part ownership of the paper if she would come to work for them She gets ready to go and Louis Martin says, unless they offered her 49%, unless you offered 51% don’t go And instead he says, why don’t you go to Washington She comes to Washington, you can see her there interviewing Roy Wilkins The man to the right with the cigar is, my mind’s gone it’ll take a second Gosh, this is really embarrassing He’s the first African-American correspondent in the White House press corps and in about three seconds he’ll come back, so please excuse my senior moment He’s Republican and he’s quite nervous about what Ethel Payne and Alice Dunnigan, the two black women in the press corps are going to do And I’ll tell you a little more about that later So anyways, so let’s get back to that moment Here we are in February of 1954, Ethel Payne is really furious so she says to the president, Mr. President, what’s happened with this business of the Howard University choir not being able to get in Now you don’t become president without being somewhat smart So Eisenhower says, well if they were in fact barred because of race I apologize all I’ll have my people look into it So he got out of that one But what Ethel Payne noticed is that the next day the Washington Post, the local paper which prides itself on covering news of the locality, had failed to cover that story now wrote about it because it had been mentioned at a presidential press conference In other words, bringing up topics at the presidential press conference, which had 197 white reporters, 3 black reporters If you brought up topics of interest and civil rights or race matters it forced the other reporters to have to cover it Now it wasn’t necessarily that these reporters were racist as Ethel Payne would simply say, some were but most of them weren’t, it just wasn’t part of their daily experience When Ethel Payne got up to get to the White House, getting to the White House was a challenge Finding a bathroom she could use in Washington in 1954 was a challenge Finding a place to eat was a challenge not for the white reports In a sense she felt that she was part of the problem every day She used the word problem, that’s a 1950’s word for that issue So she in a sense dropped this notion of being objective and instead decided to be fair But working with Louis Martin, the Washington lobbyist for the NAACP nicknamed the 101st senator because of his effectiveness Every few weeks they would work on crafting really good questions and the questions weren’t simply to elicit from the president a response on an important policy stance regarding civil rights whether it be housing, busing or federal money or jobs But also to educate the president and the press corps because they didn’t know about these issues So when she would ask a question sometimes the questions were really long out of necessity because the guy up front didn’t, I mean you know today you get a [inaudible] together and they immediately start talking shop because they know everything Section eight housing, all these terminologies, what are you doing about the other thing But Eisenhower knew nothing about these civil rights issues and nor did the press corps So she continued to ask these questions until one day in 1955 she said to him, Mr. President you know under the commerce clause of the constitution, again I’m paraphrasing you’ll find the exact words in the book, congress could desegregate interstate bus travel Are you in favor of doing something like that, we really need your support? Well he rears up in his sort of military posture and he says,

I don’t know where you get off asking that question And you’re thinking oh James he’s just getting excited up here having a chance to talk to people and I’m exaggerating the you could do what I did But there’s an even better option I drove to Abilene, Kansas to hear the audio tape and you can hear his anger, the timbre of his voice He is clearly ticked off at the effrontery of her to ask this question Now if you want you can just go to NPR because Karen Grigsby Bates has the audio tape on a story about Ethel Payne You can hear him going where do you get off asking this question And then he goes on to say, you know, I’m president of all Americans and I want to do what’s in the best of all Americans not any just little special interest group The room went dead quiet Eisenhower had said on the record before the nation that the quest for equality by a large group of Americans was tantamount to a special interest lobby like let’s say the farm lobby A reporter quickly says, Mr President let’s talk about Hawaii, you know, really uncomfortable The next day of course, there were headlines across the country a reporter irks Ike, you know, the old days when they had that wonderful literation And so Eisenhower learned his lesson that day and the lesson was you don’t call on Ethel Payne anymore So she was basically frozen out Alice Dunnigan had the same treatment over time too, her questions ceased to be asked And we might not have heard much more about Ethel Payne except for this woman who then as we might have[inaudible] said, sat in the wrong part of the bus and triggered the Montgomery bus boycott at the same time So Ethel Payne left Washington and went to the front lines of the civil rights movement in Montgomery and in Alabama, much to the consternation of her paper who were quite unwilling to send her south until this had happened Why was that? Well let’s think this through She’s black and she’s female, the two most expendable forms of life among white segregationists in the south But she carries something even more fearful to them a reporter’s pad She was going to go south and report to northern folks, particularly Afro-Americans what was going on So she arrives in Montgomery where these two men are basically introducing themselves to the nation, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy you see in the back And she’s just landed in Montgomery and she does something that I think is incredible, I mean having studied journalism history, incredibly important and overlooked Which is now as a white guy writing civil rights history 60 years later I can tell you the turning moments, the turning points But no one knew how significant Montgomery was at that moment the boycott had just begun And more importantly, no one knew yet about the extraordinary shift in the leadership of the civil rights movement Prior to that moment if you go back to the 19th century you had people like Frederick Douglass or then labor leaders like W. D. Boyce, you had the movement into the legal arena with people like Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP or the March on Washington movement led by A. Philip Randolph By the way, for whom she worked with on the original March on Washington before she became a reporter in 1940 and 41 But now it was shifting to the clergy and it was the birth of the nonviolent movement And so she writes this sentence her first week in Montgomery and she says, this new gladiator goes into battle wearing a reverse collar and holding a Bible This new Moses is the Negro preacher Now two things to notice about that She’s the first to perceive this from the ground floor as opposed to the luxury of a history book years later But notice her language and this is one of the reasons why Ethel Payne is not necessarily remembered We look at history anachronistically, we look at it from the viewpoint of today So when the Library of America assembled its two volumes, a collection of civil rights reporting, Ethel Payne’s not in that collection And why is that, because historians looking back today, primarily white historians, are looking for these great analytic pieces written at enormous length with convoluted sentences and analysis that might have appeared in say the New York Times They dismissed Ethel Payne because they forget who she was writing for She was writing for an audience that when the paper started 50% of its potential readership could not read By the 1950’s African-American literacy rates had risen, but nonetheless she was going to write for her audience no different than Jimmy Breslin in the Post or Ernie Pyle in World War 2, you write for your audience So she makes these religious allusions coming out of St. John’s AME Church and she writes in a particular style and it worked She became this conduit between the front lines of the civil rights movement and black readership all around the United States serving to activate, as well as to inform Because one of the things about journalism is merely reporting can trigger activation Think about it, one of the great powers of reporting is illuminating the dark recesses in society,

telling people about poverty, telling people about things and that often triggers things So there she was doing this, but I want to tell you another anecdote that I just love White reporters began to show up in Montgomery, it was a big story right So they go to these church meetings and when Martin Luther King or Ralph Abernathy are up on the podium do you think they would say to the audience who knows them hi I’m Ralph Abernathy, they started talking But who didn’t know who they were, the white reporters lining the side of the wall They would lean and say, Abe Abernathy how do you spell that guy’s name And so the black reporters and the white reporters formed an alliance in Montgomery Black reporters couldn’t talk to sheriffs, they wouldn’t give them the time of day the white reporters could But the black reporters who were embedded in the black community could tell the white reporters what was going on So every day at Morton Dean’s Drugstore, I think that’s the name of it, no it was Dean’s Drugstore not Morton They would meet and exchange information So here’s the little secret bit of civil rights reporting history I love When white liberals in the north opened up the Washington Post and New York Times, the Boston Globe they were reading coverage that was being shaped by the Negro press of the time, the press they didn’t even know existed So even their own coverage was being shaped by the black press Ethel Payne then did something quite remarkable She decided that the black freedom struggle in the United States was not merely a domestic struggle it was tied intimately to an international struggle for freedom If you have a map of Africa in 1950 all you see are colonies no black rulers, the same with Asia So there was this remarkable gathering going on in Bandung, Indonesia where folks from all around the world were coming to meet together in an international summit and they were doing so without permission and without inviting the two countries that were carving up the world, the United States and the USSR This was not something the US was happy about Here’s a headline by the way that gives you a sense of it, Afro Asia meet first confab of world’s darker people Adam Clayton Powell said I’m coming, hang on The State Department said, no you’re not He looked at them and said I’m an elected member of the House of Representatives you don’t tell me where I can go So then they tried tactic number two, we’ll give you a plane and a tour of Africa and you can come back a hero, no thank you So he went Richard Wright abandoned everything in Paris where he was writing a book and hopped on a plane Everybody who’s anybody, including this wonderful moment in the book with Chet Huntley, do you remember him, the Huntly and Brinkley? Just before he became a TV anchor he was out there And Ethel Payne sent back her exclusive photographs And a lot of history of international relations dismissed the significance of this conference because it didn’t necessarily produce anything Well it did produce something, it was the first time all the future leaders who were going to liberate their countries were coming together, again without permission, without approbation, without being part of the two countries carving up the world So the focus began for her to look elsewhere and outside of the United States, as well as to connect things So in 1957, Ghana became the first sub-Saharan country to become liberated from colonial rule I should exclude South Africa and Rhodesia and have a black government take power And so Eisenhower sent Richard Nixon off to his vice president to represent the United States at the gathering Now this is quite a feat because in those days Air Force One if we were to call the plane that, getting there is not so easy In fact, one of the planes that went had to stop in Morocco and basically have its engine replaced So just getting was quite a feat Everybody who was anybody in the civil rights movement showed up, including Martin Luther King This photograph is anachronistic, it’s actually not taken in Ghana, but it’s the only one I could find of the two getting together So here’s the delicious moment that Ethel Payne witnesses, the first time the Martin Luther King gets to meet the vice president of the United States, not in the United States but all the way over in Africa So King says to him, you know, it’s really neat to see you here celebrating black freedom If you really want to see the black freedom struggle Mr. Vice President might you want to come south and visit us in Alabama, Nixon [inaudible] do that? But why don’t you come to Washington and have a meeting with me, which is a big deal So Martin Luther King does come to Washington subsequently, meets with Nixon and then meets with Eisenhower, it’s the first high level meetings that occurs Now what was also going on in 1957 is the debate over the 57 Civil Rights Act And the photograph you see up there you’ve got Kennedy on the left, Hubert Humphrey in the middle and LBJ on the right You ask any young member of our society who’s had a history high school textbook and they would immediately say, oh of course, Kennedy, Johnson great heroes of the civil rights movement, they’re the ones who kind of got it through right Well, that might be somewhat true for 64 and the legacy of Kennedy

and of course he’s dead, but people voting for the bill But in this moment those two people are gutting the 57 Civil Rights Act, they’re taking all of the good parts out of it And the one person who is there bugging them when it comes off the floor and asking these questions is Ethel Payne, challenging LBJ, challenging Kennedy Now sit tight because you may fall off your seat when I suggest that the hero of the moment is none other than this man The man who brought us Watergate and Vietnam, brought us the law and order campaign, which was certainly a subterfuge to and please don’t feel offended, but this is the way I think [inaudible] to put blacks back in their place You know by calling it law and order in the 68 campaign He’s on the good side at this moment, he wants that bill passed much more in time Now why might that be, he could be a nice guy But he could also be a Republican who’s thinking back 25 years because black voters in the United States had only been voting for Democrats since 32 In 57, that’s 25 that’s one generation So he and a number of African-American Republicans thought we could lure them back by supporting the 57 Civil Rights Act It does get passed, it’s a completely gutted and decimated and useless piece of legislation So what happens after that is that Ethel Payne is meeting with Simeon Booker from Jet Magazine and he had gone to Ghana with them on the trip Remember I told you it’s a really big ordeal for reporters to go all the way to Africa So because these jet trips didn’t occur very often they said let’s have a reunion of everybody, let’s meet at my new apartment and get everybody together And Simeon says, yeah that’s great why don’t you invite the vice president [Inaudible] a funny idea, so she invites him and he says yes and comes So Pat Nixon and Richard Nixon show up at her apartment for the party and they just don’t show up and wave they stay for the whole evening You don’t think that’s a big deal, here’s what Jet Magazine says Marking first time a vice president, just look at the words from the 1950’s, has socialized at the home of a Negro in Washington And there’s another picture of her and the gather So at that moment Richard Nixon in a sense was a good guy, but after his election she also realizes that JFK has changed and he becomes a good guy And subsequent to his death she becomes an enormous admirer of LBJ She leaves the Defender for a while after a fight with her editors and she’s working in voter registration with the Democratic Party that picture you see By the way, if you look at the device in front of LBJ, that’s what they then called a teleprompter He was the first to use such a device And in 1964, famously when they gather for the signing of the 64 Civil Rights Act that did have much more in the way of teeth the woman who is asked among the people to be there is Ethel Payne and there she is receiving a pen She also receives a pen from the 65 Civil Rights Act What’s significant about her reporting and what I want you to take away from today is an understanding that particularly in what’s been happening in the last two years The events that we have seen in Ferguson and other places, we learn most of it through the media Well there isn’t a the media The legacy of segregation from that point still endures in the media today Yes, the Washington Post has a more colorful staff, New York Times has minorities of all sorts, but they’re still primarily in a sense white institutions And why that’s so significant is if you have the honor as I did to read the black press in the 50’s and 60’s and read the white press at that time you learn something to me as a white guy that was fundamentally shocking Which was that the New York Times, the white papers that I grew up with you, viewed the 64 Civil Rights Act, 65 Voting Rights Act as munificent gifts being given to disenfranchised people If you read the Defender, the Afro-American, you read Ethel Payne what you’re seeing is these are victories, hard-fought victories by everyday people like portrayed the movie Selma winning it, wrestling it, taking it away from the government who has refused to give those to us And that legacy still endures today because if you look at the tone and look at the way we cover things there’s I think a high distrust of the major white papers Because if we go back a generation it was a complete misunderstanding of what was going on She didn’t remain completely out of journalism In 1967, Sengstacke at the paper calls her up and says, we’d like you to come back and she says, well under what conditions Well we’d like to send you to Vietnam, so this is the headline Chicago Defender to have its own man in Vietnam, but she’s a girl So Ethel Payne was sent to Vietnam for three months, a long period, and her job was to cover the fate of black troops She was perfect for the job because the Korean War had been segregated This is the first desegregated war She found instances of black commanders sending white soldiers

off, black and white soldiers working together, black doctors in villages, found all kinds of to her really remarkable things I mean, think about that war, Colin Powell and others advanced because the military in a sense was much more meritocracy She also found problems there, but she did not focus on the war itself and years later she regrets the fact that she focused solely on the fate of African-American soldiers And like so many other reporters was manipulated by the White House and nobody was doing, I don’t know if you remember, but no one was doing the math back then At that point the body count we’d wiped out North Vietnam, China, Korea and several other nations And 67 is the turning point when reporters begin to question what’s going on So she spent the rest of her life traveling for the Defender They brought her back to Chicago and I like to say her favorite seat when she was an editor at the Chicago Defender was not in the newsroom, but was in an airplane She went to Africa with this man, Henry Kissinger, on one of those whirlwind tours She went with Secretary of State Rogers I’m convinced that if there was a thought bubble above Ethel Payne in this picture it is that my mama said to be polite under all circumstances because she was not fond of Henry Kissinger She got on this trip for instance, the Henry Kissinger trip because as they got ready to go to Africa This is the 1970’s, we’re not talking about 60’s and 50’s, one of the people looking at the press list said Mr. Secretary, you don’t have anyone whose African-American on this trip as a reporter and you’re going to Africa So he said, oh call up that woman who always gives hell about me on CBS So they called up Ethel Payne, she scrambled to get her suitcase together and she and a couple of other black reporters went But this was always the case There was also the case in 1973, when China was opened and the Chinese noticed that the group of reporters who were being sent to come for one of the early visits they said to the Americans politely, you don’t have any blacks on that list, don’t you have blacks in the United States I mean you can imagine what fun the red Chinese were, so Ethel Payne was invited to join Here’s a picture of her on the streets of Shanghai wearing her leopard skin, no leopard died it’s fake leopard skin But and notice everybody’s looking at her Remember how closed China was at this point, so they had no idea if she was a ruler from some African nation or what The other reporters noticed what was going on in the street, so they all got out of the car as she walked by they all When she got in the car she was just crying tears of laughter Here’s a picture of the group and it’s really interesting, you know, that photographs can tell a story If you see there’s another woman in the group and she’s looking off and the body language is sort of like I’m really not part of this group, that’s the intellectual from New York Susan Sontag and in a sense it really captured her Ethel Payne continued to report all over the place from the south, there she is with Shirley Chisholm, there she is reading a Wire copy, we have her with Jimmy Carter early on In 1984, at this point she’s a self-syndicated columnist, so she’s much freer to support people on their campaigns She was a strong supporter of then Jesse Jackson who also lived in her house here in Washington And in 1990, when Nelson Mandela was freed she went at a very, I mean in 1990 she’d be 78, 79 then, she went to South Africa to interview him And if you notice in the photograph how he’s dressed, he’d come in overnight from someplace and he was dressed in his bathrobe And this what I find so charming about Ethel Payne’s sense of humor and self-deprecating humor She said lots of people got to interview Nelson Mandela I’m the only one who did so while he was in his PJs Before she passed away that’s an exhibit at the Anacostia Museum and you notice they’re beginning to call her the first lady of the black press repeatedly She was uncomfortable with that kind of iconic status, but she understood the power of it She placed a lot of women, young women into jobs She’d come and visit them their first day on the job and say, now you be quality I’ve met these women who have never forgotten what she did Here she is at her typewriter, she always stuck to it even though she had been given a word processor And after her death a postage stamp was issued in her honor And to end I just want to tell you two little thoughts about her that I think really represent As a writer, I’ve always had the rule that I like to end books with my own words because, you know, frankly I put in all 400 pages the last taste like the dessert if you come to my house you’re going to eat my dessert and leave with my taste But I kept finding that other people had a much keener sense than I could ever get of Ethel Payne and one of them was James Joseph And here’s what he said at her funeral when it became his task to speak about her She used her skill not to acquire power for herself

Think how different that is in Washington these days Not to acquire power for herself, but to activate power in others at a time in which our world seemed to be fragmenting into we and they groups Ethel was searching for the social blue of civil society, affirming the connectedness of humanity She made the case in all sectors of her society that fear of difference is the fear of the future In her own work she was not simply reporting the news she was stretching the horizon of the heart, widening the circle of community, seeking to transform the laissez-faire notion of live and let live into a moral imperative of live and help live In 1983, she was a professor at Fisk University in Nashville and she was asked to give a sermon at the AME Church and she probably felt very comfortable there having grown up in an AME Church across the street, although she by her own admission was not a regular churchgoer later in life And she said something there that I translate a little bit She said to the all-black audience that day that ours was the generation who put our lives on the line to send our kids to college, but we forgot to tell them our story And as a white historian I kind of rework that sometimes and I say, we’re all forgetting to tell a story The single most powerful story of the United States around the world is not our Declaration of Independence no matter how lofty the ideals are, not our revolutionary war, but the civil rights movement If you leave the United States that’s what people ask you about That’s what inspires because its grassroots changed from the bottom up And so many people face oppression around the world that a document signed by people against England doesn’t invoke the same kind of inspiration than people who are portrayed in a movie like Selma, just everyday people getting together And Ethel Payne was part of that group, she’s part of that second rung of change makers And I particularly want to bring that message to younger people because I taught high school for 10 years and the version our next generation are getting is that there was this awful period of segregation, along came Martin Luther King and everything is better now And what’s wrong with that message and I’m not diminishing Martin Luther King in any way, but it’s leaving children to believe that we have to wait for somebody to come and change the circumstances You have the power to change lives in those kids And you read about Ethel Payne’s story you get that sense She rose up from Southside Chicago, went halfway around the world to make her mark, came back and served as this critical link in journalism seeking to advocate and inform and change the world with the power of the pen And she’s part of that group and I think our next generation need to know that story because we’re forgetting to tell it Thank you, you’ve been really patient with me I obviously could go on for six hours [ Applause ] Yes, there’s a question Please >> There’s a comment the gentleman with the cigar in earlier photos >> James McGrath Morris: You can help me with my >> Yes, he was the first black reporter to lead the White House press corps Louis [inaudible] >> James McGrath Morris: Thank you, so I was having a long [inaudible] Yes, I was having a hard — I don’t know why, you know, [inaudible] And let me tell you about him He’s a really nice guy, but he was uncomfortable with Ethel Payne and Allison Dunnigan He was the one who first complained that their questions were too long And of course it’s 1950’s speak, so he’d write them gals, you know, he’d refer to them going on But he was also, he was like many men who had broken through professionally who was nervous about his position vis-a-vis whites And so he never was asking these tough questions that if you pardon me the two gals were asking Until finally he says Mr. President, a lot of people been asking me to ask you this question and I’m sorry, but I have to ask it and then he asked a question And I really say that defensively I’m not attacking him But what was so great for me going back and looking at that world is they’re all three such different people trying to navigate the shoals of racial life in Washington and the press corps and each had a different thing People don’t understand today when Ethel Payne and Ray, my mind’s gone, Mitchell were walking the halls of congress not only are they senators using a word on the floor of the house that I would not repeat in public to refer to African-Americans, but they would brush by them in the hall as if they didn’t exist You know that kind of just knock into their shoulder slightly So, you know, Louis Lautier was a male, Ethel Payne had two things when she sat in the back of the press corps, she was black and she was female And so when you want to understand her courage and say Mr. President, I first I thought it was her confronting the great white leader of the United States, no there was something else going on

As she said Mr. President hundred 197 male white faces turned around and looked at her, all with the implications of where do you get the chutzpah to ask a question And if I were her I would have been wearing Depends every day that I went into that audience I mean it’s a terrifying thing And so I’ve tried to reconstruct that because I mean most of you obviously know your history But trust me when I talk to younger audiences they’re clueless to how daring an act that was for a black woman to challenge the president in front of 200 other white reporters That was an act of courage I guess I can take more questions and I’m more than one glad to answer more, I don’t want to keep people here [ Inaudible Comment ] Yes [ Inaudible Comment ] Oh yes, including Kathleen who’s right next to you The two things, the sadness of her self-syndication was that she had very little money, she got social security And I found letters where she was writing the paper saying, you know, you haven’t paid me my 50 bucks for those columns And the black press also at that point was losing the power it once had The white press had robbed the black press of its best reporters And let’s think about one of the reasons the Chicago Defender was so successful in 1905 and up to the 50’s is that the Chicago Tribune and I’m telling it for Chicago, it could be Baltimore The white press had completely ignored the black community And what do we want to see in newspapers, high school graduations, obituaries, wedding announcements Well once the white papers began to do that it took away a lot of the economic basis So when she was self-syndicating those papers didn’t have much money and didn’t have the same kind of readership I did have a chance to interview and talk to members of her family, including her nephew who’s featured in the book who became the first African-American page and was barred from doing that And I’ll be glad to tell you that story later when we’re done And I did so for a number of reasons One, I was approaching the story with enormous trepidation, you know, I’m an aging white guy who am I to write a story about a black woman in the 1950’s I made a joke at one point to myself and, you know, when you make a good joke it’s usually not good for everybody else, but I’m walking around the house laughing up a storm And I said, you know, why can’t a white guy write a story about a black woman who became famous writing about a white bald president, I actually said a white kind of white bald guy But anyway and the truth of the matter was that even though I thought Ethel Payne and I if we got together we’d talk about cooking because we both cook We’d talk about the editors who messed up our stories We’d have all this shop talk I still was nervous and I wasn’t going to proceed unless those who knew her thought I was okay And so it wasn’t just interviewing them it was getting approbation from those who knew her and then they could look at my books and say, you know, the book could be very different if a young black woman had written it, but at least it’s fair And then lastly and then I’ll answer your question, then we’ll break up is that I also discovered in two of the three places that held her papers, [inaudible], at Howard and Schaumburg Collection New York the papers had never been processed, 25 years after her death they were still sitting unopened And I thought that was an invitation, I thought, you know, I’ve got the skills as a storyteller I’m going to go and do this story So those are all the things that empowered me Quick question then because you folks [ Inaudible Comment ] No, I never did The closest I think I’ve come and I’m looking for a photograph is in 1981 when the hostages were freed and there was this big event on the south lawn of the White House Anybody who had a press pass went to it, including me I was a reporter then And I want to get one of those photographs with a magnifying glass and say, I was 72.5 feet away from her, but I never got to meet her no >> So what made you start writing about her if you also [inaudible] if she was inspired at all by [inaudible] >> James McGrath Morris: She was, she didn’t meet her, at least I never found out But how could she not be, they lived very close to each other, she knew of her work [ Inaudible Comment ] She knew her [inaudible], see family already here to help me out And, you know, when she was struggling to become a writer the only black woman in Chicago who made any money from writing was Ida B Wells, so she certainly was There’s a different risk that they took, but I think I often — I spoke at the Ida B. Wells conference that was held this year and I think in many ways Ethel Payne was the 20th century version of her I was — I came to her because I was desperate for a book, I had worked on a book for a year that fell apart and I had written books about journalists So I went to the Google and made a list a hundred famous journalists in the 20th century, Walter Cronkite, all these people

and Ethel Payne’s name showed up on it And I used to like pat myself and say I had some idea who she was, the truth of the matter is I was clueless So I began looking into her life and thought this is too great a story, somebody’s bound to be working on it And then as I found out the papers had never been processed and all these kinds of things it seemed to me an invitation that if no one else was going to do it I better get cracking So I love journalism, I like the power of journalism change and I also I am one of those people who was swept up by the story of the civil rights I’ve always studied it, I wrote a piece about how Arlington was the instrumental place in breaking down massive resistance, so [inaudible] original scholarship about and I’m interested in the civil rights movement from the bottom up I’m not writing a biography of some famous person So those all combined to do it And when Kathy and others said yeah, you’re okay you could probably do it, then I was >> You did an excellent job >> James McGrath Morris: Well thank you, well thanks So I’m glad to stick around You guys, you know, you want to get a sandwich before you get back to work or something But I’ll be signing books and I’ll stay and answer questions as long as anybody wants And thank you for letting me rattle on so long >> This has been a presentation of the Library of Congress, visit us at LOC.gov