This review originally ran in the Boston Globe on Sunday, February 15, 2015.
‘Somehow, I felt I was woven into the drama that was going on,” said Ethel Lois Payne of her experience as a reporter covering the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott for the Chicago Defender newspaper. “This was something taking place for me and for all the people that I knew . . . It was like a historic battle being drawn out on a field, but you were part of it.”
During her 30-year career Payne seemed to be present for every pivotal moment of the struggle for black civil rights. And like the African-American Defender itself, she didn’t pretend to be objective. As Payne said, “We are soul folks and I am writing for soul brothers’ consumption.”
James McGrath Morris has written two other biographies about journalists, “Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power’’ (HarperCollins, 2010), about newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer, and “The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism,’’ (Fordham University, 2003), about newspaper editor Charles E. Chapin. In “Eye on the Struggle’’ he focuses on a less well-known yet equally important aspect of American journalism history: the black press.
As Morris shows, the Chicago Defender and other black newspapers were often the only news outlets that regularly reported on the injustices facing the African-American community, from the early days of the civil-rights protests in the South to the first reports on the murder of teenager Emmett Till. And Ethel Payne was often first on the scene.
Payne was born in Chicago in 1911. Morris’s portrait of the Midwestern metropolis challenges the widespread belief that segregation was confined to the American South. Strict racial divides prevailed in the city, including the schools Payne attended. “When it comes to morality, I say colored children are unmoral,” said one assistant principal of a predominantly white Chicago high school. “Not that we segregate them: the white keeps away from the colored.”
Payne was a bookish girl whose hero was “Little Women’s’’ Jo March, but because of a struggle to get a good education and the economic crisis of the Great Depression, her dreams of becoming a writer were put off for years. Payne was 40 years old when, in 1951, she finally published her first story at the Chicago Defender.
She may have started late, but “[h]er ambition, stoked by years of closed doors, gave her the energy to match younger reporters.” Payne took her readers into the action of the civil-rights movement, her folksy, down-to-earth personality and writing style putting her subjects and readers at ease. She was one of the first reporters to understand that the black church was the source for new leadership in the fight for civil rights. “ ‘A new type of leader is emerging in the South,’ ” Payne wrote in one of the earliest newspaper profiles of King. “ ‘He is neither an NAACP worker, nor a CIO political action field director . . . [he] carries a Bible in his hand.”
Payne’s personal relationships with leaders of the civil rights movement, as well as her political connections in Washington, earned her the title of “First Lady of the Black Press,” and her career as a journalist and, later, as a union organizer and political activist took her overseas for meetings with world leaders including Nelson Mandela, whose antiapartheid cause she had long supported.
“Eye on the Struggle’’ is a fast-paced tour through the highlights of 20th-century African-American history, with Payne as witness. But we hear very few details of her personal life. One gets the impression that Payne was highly protective of her intimate relationships — assuming there were some. Yet perhaps that’s fitting for a woman whose profession was her identity.
“For black journalists, particularly me,” she once said, “[w]e were absolutely unable to make the distinction between what is ‘objective journalism.’ So I adopted a code of trying to be fair, but I could not divorce myself from the heart of the problem, because I was part of the problem.” As Morris’s exhaustive and heartfelt biography reveals, Payne was also a large part of the solution.