I am constantly amazed that in spite of all of the things I learned in school and through my own studies, that there are endless stories from the Civil Rights Movement that are continuing to be told. Amazon recommended this biography of Ethel Lois Payne (1911-1991) and as I looked at the cover, I recalled the name but the face did not ring a bell. My curiousity continued to pull me in and I knew that I had to learn more about this intriguing woman. Author James McGrath Morris has called her the first lady of the Black press. It is quite the title but as I learned while reading the book, the title was not only earned but it may in fact may be an an understatement.
Payne’s story begins in Chicago, in the year 1911 when she enters the world becoming the fifth child of William and Bessie Payne. Jim Crow and segregation were alive and well making life for Blacks unbearable at times. And although racism does exist today, the America in which we live stands in stark contrast to the America in which Payne navigated as she made a name for herself as a respected journalist. Chicago is a rough city but those of us familiar with it already know that. And putting aside the modern day shootings that place, violence has been a part of Chicago’s history for well over 100 years. Morris recounts some dark moments in the city’s history which show the tense racial climate the pervaded throughout the city and America. But Payne is unfazed and determined to blaze her own path. After the conclusion of World War II breaks, the military comes calling and Payne finds herself as foreign correspondent in Japan. This first major assignment would kickstart the career that lasted until her final days in 1991.
Upon returning to the United States, she accepted a post with the Chicago Defender and eventually earned her White House press credentials. The act in itself was almost unheard and Payne wasted no time in stirring the pot. A tense question and answer session with President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) brings her more press than she could have bargained for but at the same time, earned her the wrath of supervisors. Nonetheless it was the point of no return and Ethel Payne kept moving forward. And what followed is a journey across several continents that included meetings with U.S. Presidents, foreign leaders and activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968). It was an incredible journey, beautfilly told here by Morris.
I also found that the book provided interesting tidbits about American history. And while the author does not present the book as a reference book for American history, he does bring the events of the past back to life which highlight the progression in civil rights made by America in the past several decades. Surely, there are dark moments in the book where progressive minds come face to face with hardened racists. Birmingham and Little Rock are just two cities whose names will be burned in the memories of readers. The acts that are committed are horrific and will make some readers pause. Personally, I find it difficult to fathom why people were filled with so much hate towards each other solely based on differences in physical characteristics. But that was how things were and sadly, the events detailed in the book did happen and many lives were lost in the struggle for equality. Payne’s voice through the Chicago Defender, was a bastion of hope that America was listening to what its black citizens were trying to say.
Throughout the story, there are big name figures who helped changed the course of American history. Some are former presdients John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) and Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994). Further, the passage of the almost powerless Civil Rights Bill of 1957 is addressed as American continues to struggle with equality. The back stories to the public facades are interesting and Payne’s obversations are spot on. She possessed incredible acumen about the Washington and future of American’s black citizens. In fact, as we see in the book, there were times where she was correct in her analysis without even knowing the underlying facts that proved her to be correct.
In later years after she moved away from Washington, her work was not done and Morris shows her continuing efforts at promoting civil rights not just at home but wherever possible. And although her physical descent becomes apparent towards the later part of the book, she never slows down but instead keeps going as she always has. Admittedly, the end of the book is without question the saddest as Morris chronicles here life that increasingly fades away from the spotlight. And in her final moments, the reality of where she ended up is strikinigly real. And I found myself scratching my head and the direction her life had taken as she continued to age. However, that is only small part of a life that was nothing short of incredible.
What I did notice in the book is that Payne never married nor did she have children. She did however, care of a nephew for a short time but he was not totally reliant upon her. The lack of a love interest becomes apparent in the story but the topic is only lightly discussed. That might be due to Payne keeping her persona life highly guarded or in the alternative, her busy life made romance impossible. I did feel a bit down regarding this part of the story and wished that she could have found someome to share her life with. But she is long gone and the reasons she had for her single life have gone with her to the grave. Notwithstanding this side-story, the book is still a very uplifting account of Payne’s accomplished life.
James McGrath Morris has certainly provided us with a fitting biography of Payne’s life that was a mixture of success, tragedy and defining moments in history. Today her name is never mentioned and younger generations will most likely have the faintest idea about who she was and why she was important. But I encourage anyone interested in American history and in particular the American Civil Rights Movement to read this book. Highly recommended.