Ethel Payne. I didn’t recognize her name. But the cover of James McGrath Morris’s biography, Eye on the Struggle, called her “the First Lady of the Black Press” — a pioneering journalist of the civil rights era. I wanted to learn her story, so I picked up the book.
I learned that Payne was indeed highly influential, reporting on and often playing a part in the big civil rights stories of the 1950s and ’60s.
I learned that Payne made several trips to Africa, believing there was a close connection between the American civil rights movement and the efforts of African nations to gain independence. Late in her life she fulfilled a dream by interviewing Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in 1990.
I learned that Payne’s writing appeared primarily in the Chicago Defender and other newspapers targeted to the African-American community — the “black press.” I’d known that such papers existed, but I’d never read them. So it still didn’t faze me that, even though I knew about Montgomery and Little Rock and Selma, I didn’t recognize the name of a key participant.
Then I learned that in the 1970s Payne worked as a commentator for CBS. I learned that she wrote a syndicated column that was picked up by many of the “mainstream” newspapers. As a result, I realized that I’d probably heard her speak on TV and that there’s a good chance I’d read some of her columns.
Now it bothers me that I didn’t recognize Ethel Payne’s name. Why hadn’t I remembered her?
Truth in a post-truth society
In the past few years, while many of us weren’t looking, we slipped into a post-truth society. Many people no longer can, or no longer want to, distinguish fake news from real news. Leaders distort the truth, either by covering it up or by trying to rewrite history (gaslighting). The truth is under attack, and all of us share a duty to know the truth and hold fast to it.
I thought I was good at holding onto the truth. I thought I could trust my memory to recollect, with near perfect accuracy, both the historical and the mundane events of my lifetime.
Yet I didn’t know Ethel Payne’s name. I’d probably heard her speak. I’d probably read her columns. I didn’t remember.
Writing it down
In the pages of Eye on the Struggle, Morris tells us why he wrote it. The memories of Ethel Payne and her contribution to history are fading fast. Young people, even young African-Americans, know little about the events and the people of the civil rights movement. It’s important, he says, to preserve those memories so that people will appreciate them and learn from them.
In my Goodreads review I faulted Morris for not revealing more of the heart and mind of Ethel Payne, for not shedding enough light on what motivated her and on how she dealt with both her successes and her missteps. But I recognize that, writing 20 years after her death, Morris probably had very limited access to the people who were close to her and who knew those things.
That’s the point, isn’t it? Time goes on, and too much of history is quickly forgotten.
So Morris is right. In any era, but especially in a post-truth society, it’s vital that we chronicle what we know about history and make it known it to others.
It goes beyond that. Journalist Sarah Kendzior, an expert on the dictatorships of central Asia, is urging everyone to write down the things we know to be true and the values we hold, the dreams we nurture, the ethical standards we believe in. Because all of those could soon be under attack.
Don’t trust your memory. Write it down. The truth is too important to risk losing.
Larry, this is one of the most beautiful and heartfelt pieces I have read on this topic. Everyone should know Ethel Payne’s name…
Thank you for reading my book and offering your heartfelt comments.