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.”

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Payne's Deep Roots with the March on Washington

The famous 1963 March on Washington had its origins in the 1941 March on Washington Movement launched by A. Philip Randolph to desegregate the armed forces and open up jobs to African Americans in the booming war industries.
   Ethel Payne, who at the time worked for the Chicago Public Library, became a trusted lieutenant in Randolph's movement and remained friends with him over the years.
   On August 28, 1963, although no longer a reporter, Payne joined her old colleagues in the press seats as more than 200,000 demonstrators converged on the Lincoln Memorial. The last time there had been such gathering was the smaller Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, which Payne had covered six years earlier for the Defender.

    Randolph provided opening remarks when the crowd reached the monument. Bayard Rustin paid tribute to black female activists, but highlighting their continued exclusion from leadership posts they were absent from the list of scheduled speakers. Payne’s Little Rock friend Daisy Bates, however, was given a brief moment at the microphone and pledged that women would sit-in, kneel-in, and lie-in to support the struggle.
   As the program neared its end, King rose to the deliver a speech intended to serve as the centerpiece of the rally. He had finished it early in the morning, before the sun rose, and a copy had been distributed to the press. As he began to read, the audience reaction was palpable from where he stood on the stairs of the monument.

   Seized by the moment, King put aside his script and instead extemporaneously talked about a dream he had been using in recent speeches. “I say to you today, my friends,” said King, “that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream.” In words that would be carved on monument and recited by schoolchildren for generations, King began to speak of his vision. “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
   It was clear to Payne that King had given up on following his prepared remarks.  The reporters around her couldn’t follow the copy of the speech they had been given.  “It was truly a spiritual message,” she said. “I saw white and black veteran reporters seated near me with tears in their eyes, stream down their cheeks. I had tears, too.”
   A few days later, while staying at the Sheraton-East Hotel in New York, Payne took out a piece of the hotel’s stationery and wrote to Randolph. “Dear Phil,” she began, “We are still glowing from the great experience of the March last Wednesday. Remembering 1941 and 1942, I can say I’m glad that at long last your dream did come true.


Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Day Payne Met Mandela

In May 1990, a year prior to her death, Ethel Payne had an opportunity to travel to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela, who had just been released from prison a few month earlier. “A palpable elation suffused her spirit as the trip’s logistics began to materialize,” recalled Joseph Dumas, a young journalist whom Payne was mentoring at the time. Fatima Meer, an Indian-born South African anti-apartheid activist with whom Payne had corresponded over the years, made all the arrangements. She had been imprisoned with Winnie Mandela in 1976 and had just published Nelson Mandela’s biography.
    At ten on the morning of May 24, Payne arrived at the Mandelas’ new house in the Orlando East section of Soweto. Payne spotted the armed security officers from the ANC guarding the perimeter and gained her first look at the controversial house whose construction she had defended two years earlier. Three-stories tall, with four bedrooms, she found it, in her words, “to be tastefully furnished, but not lavish.”
    In the living room, Payne drank coffee with Winnie Mandela, whom she met for the first time after years of correspondence. Nelson Mandela greeted Payne while still clad in his pajamas. The two sat down and he answered her questions for thirty-five minutes, twenty more than the fifteen-minute audience that had been promised. Payne asked about the ongoing negotiations with the government and resistance among white South Africans. Despite his imprisonment, Mandela remained conciliatory in freedom. “The majority of whites want to see a peaceful change,” Mandela told her. “Whites have nothing to fear from sharing power with all the people of South Africa.” Payne was amazed at Mandela’s attitude. “Ethel could not understand why Mandela was not angry,” said C. Payne Lucas of Africare who saw Payne upon her return to the United States.
    The interview completed Payne, dressed in colorful floral outfit with a long strand of pearls, stood next to the much taller Mandela in his red bathrobe tied closed with a cord. When she returned to the United States Payne told her friends that lots of reporters had interviewed Mandela since his release but she was the only one to have done so while he was in his bathrobe.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Forgotten King

King giving his "Beyond Vietnam" speech in April 1967
Toward the end of his life, Martin Luther King spoke out against the Vietnam War and took on a more radical tone in his criticism of American society. In public remembrances of the man, this chapter of his life is sadly often overlooked. His criticisms remain very relevant today.
      In early June 1967, Ethel Payne covered a speech King gave at the Capital Press Club annual gathering in Washington. The club had been created 24 years ealier because the National Press Club barred blacks from membership.
   There had been considerable debate among the Capital Press Club leaders about having King speak. In April he had come out against the Vietnam War. Since then many of his movement colleagues, including the NAACP, had disassociated themselves from any effort to connect their rights movement with the peace movement. His allies in the white press deserted him, as well. The New York Times said that by fusing race and peace King had done a disservice to both causes. The Washington Post said that his stance had diminished his usefulness to his cause and country.
            Even Payne's newspaper, the Defender, joined the chorus of critics. First, it did so by putting Payne’s account of how GIs viewed the war on the front page a week after King’s speech. In her article, she reported that ninety-nine percent of the men she interviewed while in Vietnam a few weeks earlier supported the war. “Negro soldiers, “ she wrote, “tend to equate the struggle of the Vietnamese people with the civil rights movement at home.”  Eleven days later, the editorial page made the Defender’s views clear. Saying that King “had been swept along by the prevailing tide of hysteria against the war in Vietnam,” the paper predicted, “he will be a shepherd without flock.”  

          “He knew he was under siege for his views,” said Payne who sat not far from him at the club dinner. “As a Negro who knows that the focus of the pro and cons of the war are centered on the American Negro now more than ever, he must have felt that this dinner meeting of the Capital Press Club was a particularly good forum for expressing himself.”
            King began by recalling the halcyon days of the movement in the 1950s and early 1960s and its great legislative victories in 1964 and 1965. “Now, we are moving in a transition period, moving from one phase of the revolution to another,” he said. “We are in a struggle for genuine equality.” The early gains, such as opening hotels, transportation, and restaurants, were won at a “bargain rate,” King continued. Finding jobs for Negroes and eradicating the slums lie ahead. “By this time,” said Payne, “the audience was so quiet one could have heard a mouse running over velvet.”
            In his inimitable slow and rhythmic cadence, King continued. “There must be a radical re-distribution of economic power,” he said.  Whenever the government funds a poverty project in Mississippi, it is labeled creeping socialism. “In this country there is socialism for the rich,” King said. “Only the poor are cast out into the unproductive world of free enterprise.”           
            “By this time,” said Payne, “the audience had come alive and the applause was at steady intervals, but a hush fell again as Dr. King approached the third phase of his speech on the subject of war.” Without mincing words, King repeated his criticism of the war and claimed that women and children have been brutalized and others have been victims of napalm. Charges, that Payne claimed in her coverage of the speech were unsubstantiated and  “indicative of the weak spot in the King logic.”
            But King was not done. “To those who say, why don’t you stick to civil rights and leave the peace issue alone, I say, I refuse to be limited or segregated in my moral concern.” The applause was deafening, said Payne. In her eyes King, the dissenter, had won over the crowd. “When he finished there was a standing ovation and it was clear to the hawks and the doves that ‘the conscience of America’ had spoke clear and firmly.”