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Ethel Lois Payne

Chicago Training School 1934

Former Journalist and Columnist; Lecturer; Network Commentator; Civil Rights Advocate

Miss Ethel Lois Payne was an African-American journalist, publisher, civil-rights leader, and educator. A native of Chicago, Miss Payne began writing full time for The Chicago Defender in 1951. As a Defender reporter, she was one of three accredited African-Americans in the White House Press Corps. She became chief of The Chicago Defender’s Washington bureau in 1954, reporting on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, desegregation efforts at Little Rock Central High School, and the March on Washington in 1963. In White House press conferences, she was known for challenging President Dwight D. Eisenhower on race issues—including the exclusion of the Howard University chorus at a Republican event and the need for support of a law to ban segregation in interstate travel.

Even outside of Washington, she was ahead of her white colleagues on segregation issues. For example, on the scene of the bus boycott in Montgomery—before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became known—Miss Payne reported that a new Black leadership was emerging that was different from the NAACP: “This gladiator going into battle wears a reverse collar, a flowing robe, and carries a Bible in his hand.”

One of her most memorable publications was a series of articles entitled The South at the Crossroads, chronicling the South during the civil-rights period. In 1966, she provided on-site coverage of African-American troops in Vietnam. Her stories from the South and her continued presence in the Washington Press Corps made her one of the Movement’s most visible chroniclers for African Americans. Over the next three decades, she became known in Washington as “the first lady of the Black press.”

Miss Payne became the first Black female radio and television commentator at a national news organization when CBS hired her in 1972. She worked there for ten years. In the early 1980s, she campaigned for the release of South African leader Nelson Mandela from prison.

In 2002, Miss Payne was one of four female journalists honored with a likeness on a U.S. postage stamp.

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