The First Lady of the Black Press

Ethel Payne, a reporter at the Chicago Defender, began her Washington career as one of three accredited African Americans in the White House press corps.

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Written by James McGrath Morris

On the morning of July 7, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower entered the Indian Treaty Room in the Executive Office Building, where 165 members of the overwhelmingly white and male press corps were gathered. After briefly congratulating the reporters on the media's efforts to reduce fireworks casualties during the recent Fourth of July celebrations, the president began to take questions.

A UPI reporter asked: Would Eisenhower support the admission of Red China to the United Nations? A New York Times correspondent wanted to know: Did the pending farm bill meet with the administration's approval? One reporter after another plied the president with predictable questions on politics, policy and foreign affairs.

But Ethel L. Payne had a more pressing issue to address. As the Washington correspondent for the Chicago Defender, the nation's leading black newspaper, she had carefully formulated a question, with the assistance of Clarence Mitchell, the chief lobbyist of the NAACP, that reflected the growing hopes of African Americans in the months after the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision to desegregate schools.

Only a few years earlier, Payne, the granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of a Pullman porter, had been working as a clerk in the bowels of a library in Chicago. Now, after a lucky career break and a meteoric rise on the staff of the Chicago Defender, she stood nervously before the president as one of only three accredited African Americans in the White House press corps.

"Mr. President," she began in her deep voice when Eisenhower called on her, "we were very happy last week when the deputy attorney general sent a communication to the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee saying that there was a legal basis for passing a law to ban segregation in interstate travel . . . I would like to know if we could assume that we have administration support in getting action on this?"

This wasn't the first time she had gotten a crack at the president. Eisenhower began calling on her earlier that spring, a year into her service as a Washington correspondent. Each time, Payne had focused on race, from the exclusion of the Howard University chorus at a Republican event to Vice President Richard Nixon's comment that every act of racial discrimination or prejudice in the United States hurts America as much as an espionage agent who turns over a weapon to a foreign enemy.

Read the rest of this article at the Washington Post.

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