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Legacy of ‘First Lady of the Black Press’ Still Relevant Today

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Ethel Payne

Ethel Payne

By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (NNPA) – When James McGrath Morris set out to write his latest book, he didn’t know how timely it would be. When Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press hit shelves, Essence magazine had just released its Black Lives Matter issue. The Justice Department had closed its investigation into Trayvon Martin’s murder, with no charges. Mainstream media was scrambling to report on police violence and systemic racial ills, and Black Americans took much of this coverage to task for its racist, shallow, or negligent portrayals.

“We get these events filtered through the mainstream media. The mainstream media is still very White. I don’t mean they don’t hire people of color…it’s a perspective issue. The fact the media had a debate over the use of the word ‘terrorist’ [for Dylann Roof] in South Carolina is an indication,” said Morris.

“So what I found is that Ethel Payne’s story, her perspective, her form of journalism 50 years ago, still has relevance today. Because while we may have made leaps in terms of segregation…the dominant filter today remains a White-controlled media.”

Ethel Payne was poking holes in that filter at a time when the White majority fought against the tide of sustained agitation to secure civil and human rights for all. At the Chicago Defender, Payne was the eyes and ears of the Civil Rights Movement, reporting from its front lines in the Deep South, press conferences at the White House, and iconic rulings at the Supreme Court. In 1953, she became the third Black person to join the White House Press Corps, and was known for persistently prodding President Dwight D. Eisenhower on Jim Crow laws and desegregation efforts.

In the ’50s and ’60s, she jetted around the globe for international stories such as Black soldiers in Vietnam and the Nigerian Civil War, becoming the first Black woman to be a fulltime foreign correspondent. Yet, she always returned for on-the-ground coverage of moments that would become history, like the start of the Montgomery bus boycott and the desegregation of Little Rock, Ark.’s Central High School.

In 1972, Payne joined CBS and became the first Black woman commentator at a major network. In 2002, she was memorialized on a postage stamp.

With 40 years of tireless journalism and a legacy honed at a Black-owned newspaper, Payne earned her reputation as the “First Lady of the Black Press.”

“When The New York Times or The Washington Post would report on the passage of the Civil Rights Act of ‘64 or the Voting Rights Act of ‘65, the tone of the articles was that these were munificent gifts being given to a disenfranchised people,” Morris said.

“Whereas, if you opened up the Afro American or the Pittsburgh Courier or Chicago Defender, what you were seeing was coverage of the fact that these were victories, hard-won victories by people who laid their lives on the line. Nothing was being given. In fact, [Payne’s] coverage often highlighted the inadequacies of these pieces of legislation.”

In the early ‘70s, Ernest Green, a member of the Little Rock Nine, made a quip to Payne about what desegregation would do to such coverage.

“He said to her that the successes she and others made with the Civil Rights Movement were going to put the Black Press out of business. Obviously, that was too strong of a determination, because there’s still a viable Black press, but his bigger point was right in that the White media was going to raid the Black press for the best reporters, offer them jobs at much higher pay. And if you’re raising a family, what are you going to do?” Morris recounted.

“Many of the best reporters were lured away. But also, importantly, the economic basis of the Black press was undercut. Because when the White press refused to cover Black communities – high school tournaments, weddings, graduations, obituaries – there was an economic reason for [Black papers].”

Further, another side effect of integration and the Civil Rights Movement is that subsequent generations do not get a thorough and true education on Black history, or how the Movement happened. Payne said as much at a speaking engagement at her childhood church, [Greater] St. John A.ME. Church.

“She told her audience that, ours was a generation who laid their lives on the line to send our kids to college, but in doing so forgot to tell them our story. I like to expand that…we tend to teach the Civil Rights Movement focused on its leadership,” he said.

“Ethel Payne was part of the lesser-known group, she’s in the second, third tier of the Civil Rights Movement. I see younger people…waiting for somebody else to come and lead them. But these movements come from everyday people.”

Morris, a former journalist who also taught high school history for a decade, has been writing biographies and narrative nonfiction for many years. In searching for a new subject, he stumbled upon Payne’s name, which was unknown to him at the time. With a little more research, he was startled to find that few historians had taken a deep look at her contributions to journalism and the Civil Rights Movement.

“For me, [this book] has been the greatest experience of my life. It’s been really an honor, for me as an author, to do a book that matters,” Morris said. “I’ve had the privilege of learning that race really matters, but I didn’t know it because I was able to stay removed from it. That, to my mind, is Ethel Payne’s gift to me.”

Payne’s personal papers and journals are housed in Washington, D.C. with the Library of Congress’ Manuscript Division and the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, and in New York at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press is available at major book retailers. Signed copies can be purchased via www.jamesmcgrathmorris.com/eyeonstruggle.html.

“She went as a reporter to the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement…to report back to African Americans…to activate them,” Morris said. “The more people learn about Ethel Payne, I think they too will feel a sense of power.”

Commentary

Biden’s “Plan” to Address the Racial Wealth Gap Won’t Cut It. Only Reparations Can Do That

The plan included steps like establishing a federal effort to address inequality in home appraisals and using government authority to boost support for Black-owned businesses, including through business grants. 

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Joe Biden and Kamala Harris/ Featured Web

OPINION

On June 1, the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, President Joe Biden announced a plan to support Black homeownership and Black-owned businesses, which he said was aimed at closing the racial wealth gap between Black people and white people. The plan received praise from those who celebrated Biden’s apparent attempt to address the gap, which his administration has identified as a key policy goal.

The plan included steps like establishing a federal effort to address inequality in home appraisals and using government authority to boost support for Black-owned businesses, including through business grants. 

These are all great steps worth taking, but we shouldn’t pretend like they will do anything to meaningfully narrow the racial wealth gap. Only reparations can do that.

According to a recent New York Times piece by Duke University economist William Darity, the wealth gap between Black and white Americans ranges from somewhere between nearly $54,700 a person and $280,300 a person. 

Using the larger estimate, which Darity argues is more appropriate, the total racial wealth gap amounts to $11.2 trillion–“a figure that implies that incremental measures will not be sufficient” to close it, he wrote. 

Another 2016 study from the Institute for Policy Studies and the Corporation for Enterprise Development suggests that white households are worth nearly 20 times more than Black households on average, and that it would take 228 years for Black folks to catch up. That’s assuming white people’s collective wealth doesn’t increase at all during that time. 

And that was before our households and businesses took the devastating economic hit of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Addressing discrimination in homeownership and supporting Black entrepreneurship are worthwhile policy endeavors. But we should be honest about what they represent in the grand scheme of things: At best, they are marginal steps in the right direction. And that’s not going to cut it. If we are serious about addressing the racial wealth gap, then we must get serious about reparations. There’s no way around it. The numbers speak for themselves.

If our elected officials aren’t prepared to go that route, fine — but we should stop letting them pretend like they are serious about the racial wealth gap. A gap created out of centuries of stolen labor, stolen land, and stolen wealth and resources can’t be addressed by a new housing policy or small business grant program.

During the 2020 campaign, then-candidate Biden said he supported H.R. 40, a bill that would commission a congressional study on reparations to determine what that could actually look like. The House passed the bill last year. Biden should push the Senate to pass it, too–and then sign it. 

And even that would only be the beginning.

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Featured

Karine Jean-Pierre Makes History as First Openly Gay Person to Lead White House Press Briefing

Jean-Pierre got her start in politics as an activist, and later as a political commentator for MSNBC. She was chief public affairs officer at MoveOn.org — a website that allows people to circulate petitions for progressive causes online — and worked on the Reproductive Freedom Initiative campaign at the ACLU

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Karine Jean-Pierre/ Wikimedia Commons

Karine Jean-Pierre, who serves as White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary for the Biden administration, made history in late May, just ahead of Pride month, as the first openly gay person to lead the daily White House press briefing. Pierre, 43, was also the first Black woman to lead the briefing in 30 years. 

Jean-Pierre got her start in politics as an activist, and later as a political commentator for MSNBC. She was chief public affairs officer at MoveOn.org — a website that allows people to circulate petitions for progressive causes online — and worked on the Reproductive Freedom Initiative campaign at the ACLU. Jean-Pierre later served on presidential campaigns for former President Barack Obama and 2016 Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley. She was also senior adviser for the Biden campaign and chief of staff for Kamala Harris. Jean-Pierre was born in Martinique to Haitian parents but grew up in Queens, N.Y.

“It’s a real honor to be standing here today. I appreciate the historic nature. I really do. But I believe that…being behind this podium, being in this room, being in this building is not about one person. It’s about what we do on behalf of the American people,” said Jean-Pierre.

The first Black woman White House spokesperson was Judy Smith, who served under President George H.W. Bush, beginning in 1991. Jean-Pierre is a part of Biden’s all-female White House senior communications team of seven women — many of them women of color.

Jean-Pierre has held several press gaggles — or informal briefings on Air Force One for journalists traveling with the president. She often represents the Biden administration on cable news shows. Her briefing came as Jennifer Psaki, Biden’s current press secretary, has said that she plans to step down from her position next year. Jean-Pierre is seen as a potential replacement.

“This is not about me. This is not about any of us. And anytime I’m behind here, and I think you’ve progressive

progressive causesheard Jen say this as well — we are going to be truthful. We are going to be transparent as well,” Jean-Pierre said.

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Commentary

Will Alameda’s Rob Bonta Save Assault Weapons Ban and Make His Mark?

Instead of strengthening or fixing the law, federal judge Roger Benitez, a Bush appointee based in Southern California, just declared it unconstitutional on June 4.

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What Is Picture Perfect/ Unsplash

When was the last time you heard about an assault weapon wreaking havoc in California? How about two weeks ago in San Jose when nine innocent lives were lost when they were shot and killed by a disgruntled white male who had a problem with diversity. 

Technically, the weapon used wasn’t an assault rifle, but a 9mm pistol jacked up with a high capacity magazine. Still, it’s illegal in California. The point is, there are laws and there are loopholes. But it’s no reason to get rid of California’s assault weapons ban, the first such law in the nation. 

Instead of strengthening or fixing the law, federal judge Roger Benitez, a Bush appointee based in Southern California, just declared it unconstitutional on June 4.

And now, the ban that Asian Americans as victims brought 32 years ago in California will need the new Asian American Filipino attorney general to show his true mettle to make sure he reverses the judge and stays the law.

Bet you didn’t know there even was such a ban in California? Yep, and in states like New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, and Massachusetts, as well as Wash., D.C.

There was even a ban in place for a brief time nationwide.

The pro-gun logic of the judge essentially was that since people in other states could get assault weapons and the ban hasn’t stopped mass shootings, what good was the law? “A 30-year-old failed experiment,” said Benitez, who called the AR-15 assault weapons “fairly ordinary, popular modern rifles.” For example, the law allowed those who owned assault weapons before the ban to register their guns. To date, there are 185,569 assault weapons in the state even with a ban.

But popularity doesn’t make them benign.

Benitez even compared the AR-15 to a Swiss Army knife as “a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment.”

That’s such a strange comparison.

I have a small Swiss Army knife that comes with a toothpick and tweezers. I’ve never seen an AR-15 come with either. Does that make the SA knife the superior tool?

Of course, you’re not really looking to pick the spinach off anyone’s teeth, nor pluck a splinter from a finger, with an AR-15. It’s a weapon with one purpose— to kill. And keep killing. Fast.

Not just one, but many. E pluribus Mass Shootings.

That makes the comparison to a Swiss Army anything absurd. But the judge piled it on. He added that knives kill seven times more people in California than rifles do. Maybe. But around the nation, assault rifles are the death-per-minute king.

The AR-15 was used at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in 2016, when 49 people were killed. In Las Vegas, an AR-15 was used to kill 58 people at an outdoor concert in 2017.

Imagine the killings in California if the state ban wasn’t in place. That’s an unknowable statistic. But the most important one. 

Without the ban, is there any doubt deaths by assault rifles would rise? More assault rifles. More incidents. More deaths per minute. 

Asian Victims Brought on Ban

The reason we have the law in the first place was because of a school shooting in 1989 in Stockton when Patrick Purdy killed five children of Southeast Asian refugees and wounded 30 others.

Purdy, a 25-year-old unemployed welder was reported to have said he hated Vietnamese immigrants, whom he believed were stealing jobs from native-born Americans. He was also fond of carrying a book from the white supremacy group, Aryan Nations.

That was his book of choice. But his gun of choice was an assault-style weapon, not the AR-15, but a Chinese-made AK-47. On Jan. 17, 1989, Purdy went to the Cleveland School and fired 106 rounds in three minutes, before taking a pistol and shooting himself in the head.

Because of that crime, the state passed the nation’s first assault weapons ban, signed by a Republican governor, George Deukmejian. What a different time. It seems like such a normal reaction. Nowadays, the deaths at Sandy Hook or Parkland  schools aren’t enough to get any law passed, and we fight over gadgets that make regular guns emulate semi-automatic weapons. 

Bonta to the Rescue?

Enter Rob Bonta, Oakland’s former state Assemblyman, a little more than a month into his new job as state Attorney General. He’s called the decision “fundamentally flawed” and now has 30 days to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. From there, whatever the decision, the case will likely go to the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the constitutional right to have assault weapons.

I imagine the six conservative justices are dying to inject some steroids into the Second Amendment.

But this could also be the case where Bonta, the pride of the Filipino American community, gets to showcase his mettle on a national scale. After just being appointed, he’s already thrust into campaign mode and has at least one strong victims’ rights candidate, vying for his job.

This could be a big-time moment for him and for us. Let’s hope he’s up for the polarizing fight against a gun lobby that twists the 2nd Amendment and forces us to live with unwanted and excessive violence.

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