This year has ushered in a new framing of black history with attention on and discussion of Ava DuVernay's critically acclaimed film, Selma. Its timely emergence on the heels of nationwide protests elevating the relationship between black communities and law enforcement also calls to mind a time when another black woman, Ethel Payne, told significant, untold stories from the civil rights era as she was coming into her own as a pioneering black woman journalist.
With Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press, seasoned biographer (Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power, 2010, etc.) leverages his significant journalism and writing background to give Payne the comprehensive and fascinating biography she deserves. Payne became a reporter for the legendary Chicago Defender during a time when there were more barriers than opportunities for her to use her talents in the service of reporting.
She was a child of the segregated South Side of Chicago, though she attended predominately white schools; and when she found that employment paths were cut off to her because of race, or anything else, she had the courage to forge another path forward.
“What surprised me was the story before the story,” Morris says. “She didn't become a journalist until she was almost 41. There were tremendous barriers to black professional women in Chicago.” Morris said he was looking for a different narrative from the outset. “Instead what I found was an interesting story about segregation—Payne was not in the embedded South Side; she described it as an island surrounded by white neighborhoods. She went to school with mostly whites, white libraries, and she was, in a way, bicultural in ways that her compatriots were not.”
Payne's ability to transcend cultural difference would be an asset to her throughout her life and travels abroad. They may have also informed an uncommon bravery. As she continued to face professional barriers in America, Payne made a tremendous act of courage: she left Chicago to go work in Japan on an army base for American troops. There, stationed African American troops and Japanese women produced unwelcome babies that Payne took notice of and began writing careful notes about. By the time the Korean War broke out, Payne met reporters who took an interest in her notes and rewrote the story for the Defender, changing her life and the history of black American journalism.
The development of Payne's reporting style and platform as an advocate for social justice is what gives Eye on the Struggle its remarkable scope and narrative. We see the Payne who was an expert at bringing sharp questions to national attention. Payne strategized with other reporters like Clarence Mitchell to phrase questions about segregation and other civil rights issues that were otherwise not covered in the mainstream press.
“Journalists wince at the way she used journalism as a tool for social change because they worship this sense of objectivity,” Morris says. “But she realized that in the White House press corps when you asked a question of the president, everyone had to report on it. It’s a reminder that it matters who is at the table.”
Both modern and historical depictions of the civil rights movement tend to marginalize the role of the black press and the contributions of black women like Payne to chronicling and participating in pivotal aspects of the movement. Morris acknowledges that Eye on the Struggle would have been a very different book if it were authored by a black woman, but as an experienced biographer, with the help and support of Payne's family as well as African American editors, Morris says he felt confident about telling Payne’s largely untold story. “Writing a biography is like drawing a portrait,” Morris says. “We bring to it our own cultural differences and background. I thought I was well-prepared and I intended to be fair. There were times when she wasn’t right—she was wrong, for instance, on Vietnam—and I don’t gloss over that. But the goal was to recast the significance of her writing and the key role the black press played.”
Payne, for instance, was one of the first reporters to travel to the South in the mid-1950s, before the mainstream, white press even knew about Martin Luther King Jr. Her timing connected blacks that were part of the Great Migration to news in the North, the South and news coming out of Washington, D.C. Her story—with its victories and humiliations—serves to move popular representation of the civil rights movement from what Morris calls “the McDonald's approach, in which every February, a leader is pictured on a cup. It makes people think they need to wait for someone to be a leader.”
The significance and relevance of a journalist like Payne was that she did not wait for guidance or an anointing. Like Ava DuVernay, Toni Morrison and other black women who had the benefit of “maturity and an intimate understanding of overcoming barriers,” Morris says, Payne lent that experience to asking very clear, astute questions. She was also able to connect the freedom struggle in America with the freedom struggle around the world. “These aren't just parochial struggles, they are worldwide struggles,” he says. “And I think it's touching that a year before she dies, she gets to interview Nelson Mandela. Of course, at the end of her life, she was arrested at the South African embassy when she was getting around with a cane. She just never gave up.”
Joshunda Sanders is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She tweets @jvic.