Ethel L. Payne (August 14, 1911 - May 28, 1991) was an award-winning African American journalist. Known as the "First Lady of the Black Press", she was a columnist, lecturer, and free-lance writer. She combined advocacy with journalism as she reported on the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s. She became the first female African American commentator employed by a national network when CBS hired her in 1972.
Read a series of interviews with Ethel Payne, free from the Washington Press Club Foundation.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Payne began her journalism career rather unexpectedly while working as a hostess at an Army Special Services club in Japan, a position she had taken in 1948. She allowed a visiting reporter from the Chicago Defender to read her journal, which detailed her own experiences as well as those of African-American soldiers. Impressed, the reporter took the journal back to Chicago and soon Payne's observations were being used by the Defender, an African American newspaper with a national readership, as the basis for front-page stories.
In the early 1950s, Payne moved back to Chicago to work full-time for the Defender. After working there for two years, she took over the paper's one-person bureau in Washington, D.C. During Payne's career, she covered several key events in the civil rights movement, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and desegregation at the University of Alabama in 1956, as well as the 1963 March on Washington.
Payne earned a reputation as an aggressive journalist who asked tough questions. She once asked President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he planned to ban segregation in interstate travel. The President's angry response that he refused to support special interests made headlines and helped push civil rights issues to the forefront of national debate.
In 1966, she traveled to Vietnam to cover African American troops, who were involved in much of the fighting. She later accompanied Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on a six-nation tour of Africa.
On May 28, 1991, at the age 79, Payne died of a heart attack.
Ethel Payne was one of four journalists honored with a U.S postage stamp in a "Women in Journalism" set in 2002.