February 11, 2008

Ethel Payne. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

Ethel Payne: White House Trailblazer

When Chicago Defender reporter Ethel Payne arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1953, there were few blacks — and even fewer black women — covering the White House.

Called "the first lady of the black press," Payne covered racial issues at a time when much of the mainstream American press avoided them. In 1956, she traveled to the South to cover the civil rights movement for the Defender. The result of that trip was "The South at the Crossroads," a series of articles that chronicled life in the South.

Payne's career in journalism was marked by controversy from the beginning.

"While I was working in Japan as an Army Service Club hostess," she explained, "I put down my impressions of life under the occupation. … Those jottings found their way into the Chicago Defender and caused an earthquake in the high command. But for the intervention of [future Supreme Court Justice] Thurgood Marshall, who happened to be in the country on a court-martial case, I would have been cashiered and sent home in chains for allegedly upsetting the morale of the troops. Six months later, I left under my own power and joined the staff of the Defender."

At the White House, Payne's tough questions and relentless attacks on segregation and the treatment of minorities drew the ire of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. During a press conference in 1954, she asked Eisenhower what he planned to do about segregation in interstate travel. The president thundered back: "What makes you think that I should do anything special for any special-interest group?" He later refused to call on her at press conferences. Payne covered the White House until 1973.

In 1972, while still working at the Defender, Payne became the first black female commentator for a national network. Three times a week, she gave her opinions on topics important to the black community for a CBS radio and TV show called "Spectrum."

She left the Defender in 1978 and worked as a syndicated columnist and freelance journalist until her death at age 79 in 1991. Payne's career is documented in the News Corporation News History Gallery.

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