Inquiring Minds: An Interview With Author James McGrath Morris

MugshotJames McGrath Morris is an author, columnist and radio show host. He writes primarily biographies and works of narrative nonfiction. He discusses his newest book, “Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press,” tomorrow, July 21, at the Library. Read more about it here.

Tell us about your new book “Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press.” What inspired you to write about Payne?

I had previously written several books about journalism and journalists. So when casting about for a project a few years ago I compiled a list of significant 20th century journalists using the Internet. Payne’s name showed up on the list. I don’t think I knew anything about her when I first spotted her name but within a few minutes of cruising the web I realized she was an important, but overlooked, figure in journalism history. It was such a good story that I presumed that someone was working on a biography. Twice before in my writing life I had embarked on projects only to learn that another writer was ahead of me. But when I discovered that her papers in two of the three institutions housing them had not yet been processed, I knew the story was mine to tell.

The state of her papers alone tells a story. The Library of Congress holds one third to one half of her papers. They are organized and accompanied by a finding aid. The papers elsewhere were, as I said, unprocessed at the time I started my work. They are well cared for in the hands of two major African American archives: The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University and The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research unit of the New York City Public Library system. But the fact that her papers were unprocessed is a sharp reminder that these institutions, like many such places working to preserve African-American history, are short of funds and staff. Unless we find a way to better support these institutions, an enormously important portion of American history may not be accessible or, worse, preserved.

You call her the “first lady of the black press.” What made her so, in your mind? How did she compare to her contemporaries, and what made her such a pioneer?

Actually, I didn’t give her that moniker. While she was still alive, Payne was frequently hailed as the “first lady of the black press.” In the book, readers can see a photograph of her in front of an exhibition titled “The First Lady of the Black Press.”

The reason she earned the title was because of her prominence in the black press and the significant historic role she played. While she was the third African American to join the White House press corps in 1953, she contributed the most of the three in bringing issues of civil rights to national attention. She did this by asking questions of President Dwight D. Eisenhower about race issues of interest to her readers of the Chicago Defender, the premier nationally circulated black newspaper of the era. In doing so, she both educated the president and the press corps about issues they knew little about and caused the mainstream white media to pay attention. In short, by merely asking questions of the president, she triggered coverage of the issue – say racial discrimination in transportation or housing – by the national media.

Second, Payne did not confine her reporting to Washington. In fact, more often than not, she could be spotted on the front line of the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama, or Little Rock, Arkansas, to mention two key sites of the struggle. Her reporting from these places, which carried considerable risk for a black female reporter, came prior to that of the white press and served to inform and activate her readers around the country.

Third, Payne presciently connected her coverage of the civil rights movement with the larger worldwide struggle for black freedom. So as early as 1955 Payne began traveling the world reporting from Asia and Africa on decolonization, apartheid and new black leadership rising in Africa.

Her work is credited with persuading many African Americans to take up the fight for civil rights. How so?

One of the great powers of journalism is its ability to put before large audiences information that might not otherwise reach them and to do so in a trustworthy fashion. When Payne covered the progress – or, often, the lack of progress – of civil rights legislation she was providing timely and important news to a national black readership that, in turn, could apply pressure to legislators. When she reported from the civil rights struggle in the South, she was helping garner national support for those leading the non-violent protest movement. Payne, in a sense, was an important part of the connective tissue that linked black readers with the civil rights struggle.

How was she also, perhaps, an inspiration to not only women of color but women in general in the industry?

Payne rose in a period in which women faced more than a glass ceiling, more like a closed door. Most professional careers were closed to women, even more so to black women. As a result Payne’s success was not only an inspiration to younger women, but she made an effort to smooth their paths. For instance, I met women who recalled Payne’s help in getting a job. But then, they told me, she would come by to visit and say, “Remember, you be quality” as a reminder that their success would open the door for other women in future years.

Tell me about the research you did at the Library in preparation for the book. What collections did you work with that you found most illuminating/interesting? Did you make any new connections or discoveries about the civil rights movement, women in journalism?

When it comes to working on a story connected to the civil rights movement, the Library is an indispensible partner. The collection of NAACP papers alone would make the manuscript room a mandatory visit.

I used Payne’s papers, as one would expect, but I also depended greatly on the remarkable staff of the Manuscript Division who always has advice to offer. I’m continually amazed at scholars who work anonymously in the manuscript room. They are only one question away from being told about a collection of papers that might play a key role in their research. In short, I always share the topic of my work with the staff, and over the past decades the members of this crew have never failed to reward me with an important lead.

Have you used the Library’s collections for your other works?

I have been using the Library’s collections for my writing since 1974. In fact, my relationship with the Library is old enough for me to be among those who once carried a stack pass. Now that I live many miles away in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Santa Fe, New Mexico, the library remains a regular part of my life. Its online catalog and the wealth of material now also online are a treasure trove. I use the Chronicling America digital collection of newspapers almost as often as my kids check sports scores on their phones.

While I eventually do have to get on a plane to use most of the library’s collection it remains a research partner from afar.

Why do you think it’s valuable for the Library to preserve our history and culture and what do you think the public should know about using its collections and doing research here?

When I come to work at the Library of Congress I see hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists visiting the place as if it were a static memorial to the past. Despite the efforts of docents, I’m not sure that these visitors – or the public for that matter – understand how alive the place is. It does not merely preserve the past but shares it with everyone in a most remarkably democratic and inspiring fashion.

I have conducted research in libraries and archives all across the United States and overseas. The gatekeepers of these places, particularly in other countries, often make is clear that one’s use of their facilities is a privilege. Not so at the Library of Congress. For its staff, the public’s access is a right, not a privilege. No matter who you are, the Library issues an open invitation to come in and learn. From books to documents, from music to movies, America’s story is here.

In closing, any final thoughts on your book, Ethel Payne and her work during the civil rights era?

As a historian I worry greatly that younger people no longer know the story of the civil rights movement or, if they do, they know mostly stories of its central leaders. Yet the movement’s success was dependent on lesser-known individual such as Ethel Payne. As a result I think the version we provide students implies that change depends on great leaders, and they fail to grasp the important story that the power to change the world lies in each of us. If there is an injustice, one does need to await the next Martin Luther King. The truth and beauty of the movement is that its moral power lay in the fact that it was a grassroots revolution led by everyday people who rose to the challenge. Payne was among their ranks and hopefully her story will inspire others.

When she attended an almost all-white high school in South Side Chicago, she was permitted to contribute an article or two to the school paper but there was no question of permitting a black pupil to join the staff. This year the journalism room in the school has been renamed the Ethel Payne Journalism Center. I love the fact that now as students come into the room, some of them will take out their cell phones and Google her name. And, perhaps one of them will be inspired to follow in her path. For Ethel Lois Payne, a closed door was an invitation to struggle not to give in. We need more like her.

For further stories of the civil rights movement, check out the Library’s exhibition “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom,” currently on view through Jan. 2, 2016.

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