“Eye on the Struggle – Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press” by James McGrath Morris.  Amistad/Harper is the publisher.

James McGrath Morris discusses and autographs copies of “Eye on the Struggle” at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19 at Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo, Santa Fe and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22 at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW.

By David Steinberg

In the mid-20th century Washington, D.C. press corps, Ethel Payne was black and female in a sea of mostly white and male journalists.

Payne was the Washington correspondent for the Chicago Defender, a black-owned newspaper. She quickly made a name for herself. She was unafraid to ask public officials tough questions, unconcerned  about advocacy journalism.

At one news conference, Payne flatly (and famously) asked President Eisenhower what he was going to do about desegregating interstate travel.

James McGrath Morris, the author of Payne’s biography “Eye on the Struggle,” said he wanted to use her writings as a window into the Civil Rights Movement.

“I only write about the things she saw and did,” Morris said in a phone interview from his Santa Fe home.

“I want to tell the remarkable story of this journalist that many people don’t know, but also an offer on-the-spot view of what was occurring as opposed to a reinterpretation 50 years later.”

Payne covered the early stages of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, giving Defender readers perspectives on the movement and its leadership of black preachers before the white press reported on these issues.

Payne also witnessed some civil rights activities through the lens of a later job as a voting rights organizer for the Democratic Party.

She was in the audience when President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress in March 1965, declaring his support for a voting rights law. Johnson also ordered federal troops to protect marchers in Selma, Ala., from locals spewing racist slurs.

Payne went to Selma to join the third and successful attempt to march to Montgomery urging the abolition of Alabama laws that kept blacks off voter registration rolls.

Before she was a journalist or a political operative, Payne had her eye on the black struggle.

More than an observer, she was an activist in the early 1940s in Chicago. She was a member of the Chicago chapter of the NAACP, which, Morris wrote, fought the housing covenants that kept blacks from living in 80 percent of the city. She also organized a community improvement programs in her neighborhood.

Payne was enlisted to bring out blacks for a rally that targeted a new federal panel formed to ensure the panel did what President Roosevelt ordered it to do – make available  more jobs for blacks in taxpayer-funded defense industries and that the military would work to ending its racial discrimination policies.

As a Defender staff writer in Chicago, Payne had won praise for her investigative journalism, articles about the life of a Pullman sleeping car porter, about low adoption rates of black children and about the mothers of orphaned babies.

Later in her career, Payne broke racial barriers as a correspondent in Vietnam and China. In the 1970s, CBS hired Payne, making her the first female African American national radio and TV commentator.

Morris is also the author of “Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power,” which a trade publication listed as one of the 10 best biographies of 2010.

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