• Victoria Stewart

Ethel L. Payne: A Journalist Who Impacted Civil Rights with Powerful Writing

How a fearless woman helped make history by reporting on the Civil Rights Movement

By: Victoria Stewart

Ethel Lois Payne recorded major moments in history in the Chicago Defender. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)
Ethel Lois Payne recorded major moments in history in the Chicago Defender. (Bettmann Archive via Getty Images)

As a Black woman, I feel the responsibility to learn as much as I can about the Black men and women who have pioneered the opportunities I would not have access to otherwise. I thought I knew most of the stories that had gotten swept under the rug until I read “the First Lady of the Black Press” on my computer screen. The story was about Ethel Lois Payne, a trailblazer of journalism who was never afraid to use her journalistic skills to express the importance of understanding the difficult lives of African Americans. Payne was the first Black woman to step into many rooms, and she did it so that it would not be as hard for someone like me to step into the same rooms today. Regardless of the obstacles Payne had to face during this time, she continued to use her writing talents to express these struggles. She changed the narrative constantly throughout her career. Payne was the first African American woman to work for the White House Press Corps and make an appearance on a network that broadcasted nationally. She made big moves during her career by covering important parts of history such as:

  • reporting on the historical Montgomery Bus Boycott

  • interviewing prominent leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela

  • reporting on the segregation and discrimination against African American soldiers

Payne used her journalism skills to give truth to history and continued to do so throughout her career.

Reporting Worldwide

Payne had a desire to take her journalistic skills past the conflicts and struggles that were being faced in the United States. As a result, her career took her abroad in many cases to report on important parts of history, specifically racism. She was the first African American to have the opportunity to report on the Vietnam War. Payne also traveled to an Indonesian conference where the Nigerian War was reported on. Having seen the contrast in societies within these different countries gave Payne a unique perspective on social issues as a journalist. She used this to her advantage. Changing the narrative of the lengths a Black journalist could go with intention of writing a compelling story.

Writings in Japan

Payne standing with the troops who were on duty in Japan. (Wall Street Journal)
Payne standing with the troops who were on duty in Japan. (Wall Street Journal)

Payne witnessed the racism and segregation that was prevalent within the military when she worked in Japan in 1948, witnessing many inequalities first-hand. Payne also kept a detailed diary that entailed her experiences. A big part of her writings were about biracial orphans born from African American soldiers and Japanese women. Many of these orphans were left to grow up without their parents, an issue she knew the complications of and how necessary it was to write about it.

White House Press

Payne faced being one of the first African American reporter’s to be given a press pass within the White House. This opportunity arrived for Payne as a result of working for the Chicago defender. These occasions came with challenges relating Payne’s race and gender. She not only had the job of covering newsworthy stories. Working through a sexist and racist environment that reflected the sign of the times was also a part of Payne’s journey as a writer. During this time, Payne bravely asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower questions that were difficult to answer. The questions were mostly about racial inequalities. Payne received backlash because of those questions, but it showed her courage. She was willing to sacrifice her reputation to get honest answers about discrimination in America.

When I think of the best kind of journalists in our history, I think of the kind of people that had the heart to face against adversity for the future of journalism. Payne was one of those kinds of reporters. Her yearning for equality spoke volumes throughout her writings and affected real change in our history. Payne is proof of how important it is to break barriers as a journalist. Her writings showed how much power is in the truth of those struggling. Payne left such an impact through the legacy of her work. I can only hope to affect change in my life as much as she did in hers.

About the Author

Victoria Stewart is a junior at the University of North Texas. Stewart is studying journalism with a concentration in public relations. She expects to graduate in May of 2023.