Monday, February 16, 2015

At Last, a Book

Dear Eye on the Struggle Blog Readers,

For the past two to three years you have been reading blog entries about Ethel Payne the subject of my forthcoming biography. Thank you for having been along for the ride. But now I can remove the word forthcoming. As of February 17, the book is available for sale wherever books are sold.

Already I have been very fortunate. Reviews that have appeared before publication have been extraordinarily positive.

“Important and often absorbing new book . . It’s a deep pleasure to meet Ethel Payne. ‘We are soul folks,’ she declared in 1967, ‘and I am writing for soul brothers’ consumption.’ Her own soul beams from this book..”
The New York Times

“In James McGrath Morris’s compelling biography Eye on the Struggle, this ‘first lady of the black press’ finally gets her due. Morris lovingly chronicles Payne’s dedication and her rise. . . For her, being a reporter was about 'stretching the horizon of the heart.’ Never content simply to ‘live and let live,’ she sought always to engage, fight and make change.”
O Magazine

Eye on the Struggle is a fast-paced tour through the highlights of 20th-century African-American history, with Payne as witness.”
Boston Globe

 “Morris’ well-paced narrative not only walks readers through the civil rights movement’s inner workings, but he lets us tag along with Payne on her 13 journeys to Africa and trips to China, Vietnam and elsewhere.”
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

 Eye on the struggle is the compelling biography of journalist, Ethel Payne, the ‘First Lady of the Black Press,’ a significant figure in the civil rights era. “14 Books to Read this Black History Month.”

“At long last, this journalistic pioneer, who traveled and covered the world, not to mention sent shivers down the spine of our strongest presidents during press briefings, is getting her due in James McGrath Morris’ absorbing new biography “Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press.”
Patrik Henry Bass, who assembled “Ten Standout Titles” for Essence Magazine

"Biographer Morris (Pulitzer) details Payne's work, preserving her legacy and filling in part of the missing history of the fight for equality. . . The rich use of sources and glimpses of Payne's personal life will engage readers interested in civil rights, journalism, and women's history.”
Library Journal

“A deeply researched, skillfully written biography.”

“Crisply illuminating portrait.”


Monday, February 2, 2015

A Pioneering Reporter's Autobiography Back in Print

Among the remarkable figures one meets in Eye on the Struggle is Alice Dunnigan. The daughter of a Kentucky sharecropper, Dunnigan overcame daunting obstacles to become the first black woman in the Washington Press Corp, a difficult feat as the solidly white group of reporters controlled much of the accreditation process.
    Dunnigan’s autobiography entitled A Black Woman’s Experience—from Schoolhouse to White House was originally published in 1974 and has been out-of-print for a long time. This year, however, under the loving care of Carol McCabe Booker, the book is back in stores under the new name Alone atop the Hill. Booker has done a wonderful job of bringing it back into print and her editor’s notes are terrific. You can learn more about the book here.
    Below is an excerpt from Eye on the Struggle in which I introduce Dunnigan to readers.

Note: Carol McCabe Booker and I will both be on panel discussing our books at the National Press Club on February 25th. Click here for more information about the event.


Dunnigan, a reporter for the Associated Negro Press (ANP), was the first African American female journalist accredited by Congress and the White House. The daughter of a Kentucky sharecropper, at thirteen Dunnigan had set her sights on being a reporter and never let any obstacles get in her way. In 1948, for instance, when Truman took off on a fifteen-day, 9,000-mile train trip that would presage his famous fall campaign whistle-stop tour, Dunnigan paid her own way by taking out a loan after her boss at the ANP, Claude Barnett, refused to approve the $1,000 travel costs. Her boss’s stinginess was a result of sexism rather than parsimony. “I did not think a woman could do the best job on a jaunt of that kind,” he said.

Female reporters had first been seen at presidential press conference during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, when two women joined the all-male White House press corps. But their entry didn’t signal an acceptance of women on the hard news side of the media. In fact, two years earlier Barnett had only hired Dunnigan to work for the ANP because all the men he approached turned down the pitiful salary he offered. She took the job in return for the title of Washington bureau chief and a low piece rate that was eventually converted to a salary of $25 a week. To make it work, she moved into a basement apartment of a white family’s house, tending the furnace and hauling the ashes to reduce her rent, eating Sunday meals of pig ears and turnip greens, and pawning her jewelry when her paycheck was late.

When she boarded Truman’s train in June 1948, Dunnigan was the first black newspaperwoman to travel on a presidential trip. She was such a rarity that when the train stopped in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a white military policeman thought she didn’t belong in the phalanx of reporters walking down the street behind the car ferrying the president to the capitol building. “Get back there behind this line where you belong,” the police officer called out. When Dunnigan continued to walk, he grabbed her and tried to forcibly direct her toward the sidewalk. But before he could, a young correspondent for the Nashville Tennessean stepped in. “I want you to know,” he told the MP, “you are messing with the party of the president of the United States. You know this woman is with us. She has her badge and she has it on.” The MP backed off.

A couple of days later, Dunnigan sat in her train compartment, her shoes off, her bare feet on the seat, and her typewriter on her lap, when there was a knock on her door. In walked Truman. “I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I tugged at my skirt. I couldn’t find my shoes. I knew I should be standing up, but I couldn’t move.”

“I heard you had a little trouble,” Truman said in a quiet voice. “Well, if anything else happens, please let me know.”

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Ethel Payne and Selma

"Selma" the movie is coming to theaters this December. Here is an excerpt from Eye on the Struggle relating to the march.

The following spring, the civil rights movement made it clear that its legislative business was not done. On Sunday, March 7, 1965, protesters in Alabama seeking to draw attention to the state’s insistent use of Br’er Rabbit–like trickery to keep blacks off the rolls of registered voters began a march from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery. State police used deadly force to halt the march as it crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, only hundreds of yards into its planned fifty-mile journey.

A week later, President Johnson came to Capitol Hill to address a joint session of Congress. Payne secured a seat. She did not want to miss this moment. As a voting rights organizer for the Democratic Party, she was anxious to see what the president was willing to do to back up his stated intentions of following up the 1964 Civil Rights Act with a federal voting rights law. The violence that met the group drew national attention to their cause and was forcing his hand.

When Johnson rose to the dais on the floor of the House, more than seventy million Americans tuned in on their televisions to see what he had to say. In the gallery above, Payne listened in amazement. In sonorous tones and in his distinct drawl, Johnson spoke in almost religious terms of the right to vote, making almost no reference to the Constitution or laws. Rather, he focused on an elusive idea of the “American Promise” and represented it in a narrative in which the time had come to grant the final act of freedom to its black citizens. “As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil, I know how agonizing racial feelings are,” Johnson said. “I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society.”

All who listened knew the speech was unlike any the president had given before. They witnessed a rare moment in politics where quiet eloquence silenced noisy opposition. The events in Selma, Johnson said, were part of a movement that reached into every part of the nation. African Americans were securing for themselves the freedom they had long been denied. “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” Then, pausing
and leaning forward, Johnson repeated the words of the movement’s anthem, “And we shall overcome.”

Payne could not find words to describe her feelings at the end of his speech. Two days later, in her office, she sat at her typewriter. “I would like every schoolchild in American to have a copy of this speech,” she wrote the president. It ranks in importance, she said, with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation. “I am proud and grateful for your leadership and I pledge to give my best efforts for the implementation of your program.”

Taking her pledge to heart, Payne flew to Selma to join the third attempt to make the march to Montgomery, but this time with the backing of a federal judge, who enjoined the police from stopping the marchers, and federal troops summoned by the president. Nonetheless, it was like stepping into the lion’s den. “You could just feel the hatred,” Payne said. “It was just like an enveloping cloak around you.”

At the spot where the earlier marches had been halted, hundreds of angry white Southerners, infuriated by the presence of federal troops, watched as 3,000 marchers crested the Edmund Pettus Bridge and descended toward them while army helicopters hovered above. Held back by a line of soldiers with bayonet-tipped rifles, the angry whites waved Confederate flags and racist placards. “I’ll never forget the faces, the contorted faces of housewives, standing out and screaming like they were just lunatics from the asylum, you know, just screaming such terrible epithets and hatred,” said Payne. They called out “Nigger, nigger, nigger!” and “Go to hell,” and cursed President Johnson. “The reaction of the people was so vitriolic,” Payne said. “You never realized how deep human hatred can be. And that was the way it was all along the march.”

Another life was taken. Klan members murdered a thirty-nine-year-old Detroit mother of five, Viola Liuzzo, for having given a ride to a young black protester. “This was a madness, just a total madness,” Payne said. “This was a time when all—it was a purging of the white South, all the venom that came out, and perhaps it was good, because it was just boiling over, and it was such an excess. It was a preparation for later acceptance of what they knew was inevitable.”

The police attack on the marchers and the ultimate success of the march impressed Capitol Hill. The Senate minority leader, Republican Everett Dirksen, joined the majority leader, Democrat Mike Mansfield, in supporting a bill like that demanded by the marchers in Selma. By August a bill was on the president’s desk granting the federal government immense judicial powers to end Southern methods of keeping their black citizens from the voting booth.

A Johnson aide was dispatched to deliver to Payne one of the pens the president used in signing the Voting Rights Act. Aside from Martin Luther King, she became one of the very few people who were not lawmakers to have a pen from the signing of both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the two most seminally important legislative victories of the civil rights movement. She put both pens on display in her apartment.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Mayor Marion Barry (1936-2014)

Marion Barry, four-term mayor of Washington, has died. Ethel Payne crossed his path several times. Here is an excerpt from EYE ON THE STRUGGLE about one such encounter late in her life. The Capital Press club mentioned here was an African-American alternative to the National Press Club, which did not then accept black members until 1955.

Pages 376-377
But the cane-toting Payne remained a reporter to the last. Mayor Marion Barry, once a well-known and militant civil rights leader, was in his third term as mayor of Washington, DC. The city government was in shambles and the murder rate had reached record levels. Under investigation for his connections to a drug suspect, Barry continued to vehemently deny his not-yet-publicly-known addiction to cocaine. He agreed to speak to the Capital Press Club, perhaps believing he would avoid the kind of questioning he had been receiving from the white media.

“Mr. Mayor,” asked Payne, who had known Barry for decades, “if you had it to do over again, what mistakes would you acknowledge?” Barry replied that he had no errors to admit. Instead he asked Payne for her opinion of him. The question was a mistake. “I think,” she said, “you have a whole pile of stuff to contend with.” An uncomfortable silence descended on the room and the mayor smiled uneasily

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Ida Initiative & Ida B. Wells and Beyond Conference

In many ways as a twentieth century journalist, Ethel Payne was an heir to the pioneering work of nineteenth century newspaper reporter Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Both used journalism to advance the cause of civil rights, both sought through writing to bring about social justice, and both were women ahead of their times.

As a tribute to as well as an effort to document the work of Wells-Barnett, the students at the University of Tennessee’s School of Journalism & Electronic Media are constructing a website devoted to chronicling the story of the remarkable woman.

Students Hannah Cather has posted a biography; Dylan Wilkes has written about her legacy;  Casey Black has expound upon her journalism; Jennifer Brake detailed her work as a suffragist; and Marion Kirkpatrick explained her work on behalf of women's rights.

There is more to come. So be sure to visit the site more than once.

In addition to this website, the School of Journalism & Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, will host a special conference "Ida B. Wells and Beyond." The conference will be held in conjunction with the 40th Annual AEJMC Southeast Colloquium, March 26-28, 2015.

If you are interested in participating, the announcement explains that scholarship should focus on the life, career and legacy of Ida B. Wells-Barnett or the work of like-minded social justice crusaders in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. To learn more contact Amber Roessner, the research chair.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Dinner with the Lorches in Little Rock

Desegregation activist Lee Lorch recently passed away. David Margolick, the author of Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, penned the New York Times obituary.  You can read it here.

Lee & Grace Lorch with their daughter.
In 1957, Payne travelled to Little Rock to cover the famed Central High School desegregation standoff between Governor Orval Faubus and the Federal government. The following is a short account of Payne’s visit with Lee and Grace Lorch, both of whom were remarkable and unsung heroes of the era, drawn from my forthcoming book.

After a night’s rest in a private home, Payne received a dinner invitation from Lee Lorch, a white mathematics professor at the small black Philander Smith College in Little Rock. The two had met the previous year when Payne was traveling for her “South at Crossroads” series. In fact, she had written two articles about Lorch, tracing his repeated firing from colleges as an example of the treatment accorded to whites that joined the civil rights movement. “Lee Lorch and his family had been hounded through four states from the North to South like refugees in displaced camps,” Payne had told her readers. “And in the process of punishing Lee Lorch for his views, three proud institutions of learning have been made to grovel in the dust and bow the knee to bigotry.”
      Payne was particularly interested in reconnecting with the Lorches because on the day Eckford had faced the troops and the mob, it had been Grace Lorch who had stepped forward to protect the young student as she sat alone on the bench at the bus stop. Enduring catcalls, Lorch had remained with Eckford until she safely boarded a bus. Payne was also hankering for some decent food. “The restaurant situation for Negroes in Little Rock is worse than bad,” she said.
      Lee Lorch picked up Payne from the house where she was staying. As they drove through town, Lorch said it was the first time they had a guest over to their apartment overlooking the capitol building and he cautioned Payne that something untoward might be said.
      At the building they entered the elevator operated by a young black woman. “I don’t believe I ever got your name,” Lorch said to the woman.
      “Frankie,” she replied.
       “Oh, but you do have another name, don’t you?”
       “Sure, it’s Frankie Coleman.”
        “Miss or Mrs.”
        “Mrs.” replied Coleman, at which point Lorch introduced Payne calling the operator “Mrs. Coleman.”
       “Frankie, looked slightly non-plussed at this departure from southern tradition,” said Payne, “but new gal of the South as she is, she didn’t quibble over the fact that I was riding in the front elevator.”
      As soon as they reached the apartment the telephone rang. The manager was calling because he understood that the Lorches were “entertaining a colored guest and this was in violation of the rules and when would he be vacating?” Lorch replied he knew nothing of the rule and “he was accustomed to entertaining his friends, whatever their pigmentation happened to be.”
       The following morning the Lorches received an eviction notice. “Right now,” Payne reported to her readers, “Little Rock to me is about the crummiest corner on the map. When I got home, Henry Cabot Lodge was on TV sounding off at Russia and giving the commies hell. Well, he should be in Little Rock now and see what’s going on.”