Ethel L. Payne was not only a journalist, and Washington correspondent, but also an important influence on civil rights, due to the press coverage she received and gave. The articles she wrote, and questions she asked in press conferences greatly helped the movement of African Americans fight for equality. Ethel L. Payne was born August 14, 1911 in Chicago, Illinois. Payne was the fifth of six children in her family. She did not consider becoming a journalist as a child. She did have a special talent for writing. She did not work on her school paper but did submit an article about the Jewish merchant section of Chicago.
Early on, race and culture held interest for her. Eventually it would be the focal point of many of her articles. She also wrote fiction pieces that she submitted to a few magazines. She had a desire to become a lawyer and applied to law school. However, she was turned away due to the exclusiveness of the school. At the time blacks were not being accepted at the University of Chicago in the late 30’s early 40’s. Also, Payne’s grades were not up to par.
She did take evening classes at Medill School of Journalism while working as a library clerk. One of her classes was creative writing, which helped her later on in her journalism career. “It developed for me a particular style of writing… I have a manner of what they call pithy writing, if I do a story, serious, I invoke a little satire, and I invoke maybe- well actually, some of my own feelings.” This pithy writing was evident in the civil rights articles she would later write. She believed that as an African American journalist she could not be a “so- called objective witness.” She also could not divorce herself from the problem because she was a part of it.
In 1948, Payne took on a hostess job for the Red Cross that sent her to Japan. Her brother had served in World War II. As a hostess she helped run a recreation club on the army base. Over there she was very attentive of learning about the soldiers and the relationships they had with some of the Japanese women. “GI’s provided a great source of money and companionship. The regulation was against their marrying them at the time, but they moved in with them.”
Payne kept a diary writing down everything she absorbed in Japan. At a press club in downtown Tokyo, Payne met with some correspondents who came through during the Korean Conflict. She shared her notes with them. One in particular was Alex Wilson. Wilson was a reporter for the Chicago Defender. He asked if he could publish her notes, and Payne agreed. Payne had her first headline as well as the start of her journalism career.
Payne was offered a job at the Defender, at first s doing features. The first piece she wrote was a series on adoption that won first prize at the Illinois Press Association. Immediately, Payne moved up in the newsroom ranks. The editor requested Payne to take on the single position as the Defender’s correspondent in Washington. At the time the White House had a rule that only the people representing the daily media could be admitted to the White House Press Corps. “That was a nice device for keeping blacks out.” Payne was one of three African American journalists who were apart of the Press corps. Payne, with the help of contacts, tried to cover many of the things going on in Washington. During this time in the 1950s, the battle of discrimination among African Americans was becoming national news. Payne’s articles of the legislative and judicial battles on Capitol Hill were blunt and straightforward. In her Article “Need Prodding to Get Congress to Act on Civil Rights Program,” she writes the following:
“Progressive legislation either directly or indirectly pertaining to civil rights is really getting the run around in Congress these days. Unless some drastic action is taken to goad the lawmakers into action, they are slated for the graveyard.”
One month later after the decision of Brown vs. Board of Education was given and reporters were praising the revolutionizing action of the Supreme Court Payne wrote another piece “Decree Labeled a Compromise,” “The Supreme Court Tuesday came up with a ‘poor compromise’ in its order for implementation of its decision outlawing racial segregation in the public school. The high court ordered the cases sent back to the federal district courts for administration of integration. In their unanimous decision, the nine justices failed to set a deadline for integration.”
Once again it can be seen that Payne is reporting the facts, but her feelings are just underneath the surface. She is skeptical, and not impressed. In a sense readers may have found themselves taking on some of her feelings after reading the piece. Objectivity seems to be the common thread among journalists, yet Payne veered from objectivity. “I think when you tell a story, whatever it is, you can always make it more interesting to a reader if you have a little pungency there.”
During this time President Dwight Eisenhower was in office. The president held weekly press conferences which Payne used as an opportunity to ask him questions on immigrations quotas, segregation in interstate travel and discrimination going on in federal housing.
The first question Payne asked President Eisenhower was if he was aware of the Howard University Choir was turned away to sing at the traditional Republican Party Lincoln Day Celebration. This topic was not being covered by the general press but Payne preferred to ask questions that her peers for whatever the case would not. Eisenhower stated that he was not aware of the incident and apologized for any discrimination involved. This gained Payne the spotlight from the media. She would use this spotlight and interest from the media to her advantage. In another prophetic incident Payne asked President Eisenhower when he planned on banning segregation on an interstate level. The president was apparently annoyed and was short with Payne. It was covered by the media. Payne believed that incident helped the movement.
“From that time on, civil rights was moved to the front burner. Suddenly civil rights began to be a big issue.”
Payne was called in by the White House Press Secretary James Hagerty. He accused her of violating a rule of the White House Correspondents Association. There actually was no violation, and the media wrote pieces about Hagerty harassing Payne. After the incident President Eisenhower recognized Payne seven times in seventy- nine months and only called on her twice. Payne was not deterred. She did not change her tactics in writing her pieces and helping along the civil rights movement. She covered the Montgomery Boycotts.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, he invited the leaders of the modern civil rights movement to join him in the oval office for the occasions. She became the first African American woman radio and television commentator by a national network (CBS). She wrote on to write political and worldly pieces up until the 80’s. She died in 1991.