From Selma To Eisenhower, Trailblazing Black Reporter Was Always Probing : Code Switch Saturday marked the 50th anniversary of the successful crossing of the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, a key moment in the civil rights movement. Journalist Ethel Payne was there.

From Selma To Eisenhower, Trailblazing Black Reporter Was Always Probing

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Tomorrow is the day 50 years ago that Martin Luther King Jr. led thousands of demonstrators across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Ethel Payne was there. She was a sometime-activist and a pioneering reporter, one of the first African-Americans to receive a White House press pass. Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team talked with some people about Payne's life and work.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Ethel Payne was already one of the country's best-known black journalists when she decided to travel to Selma. In in a 1987 C-SPAN interview, Payne recalls being galvanized by President Lyndon Johnson's speech to Congress a week after the carnage that would come to be known as Bloody Sunday.


ETHEL PAYNE: I'll never forget the night that Lyndon Johnson made the address to the nation in which he said, I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.


PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors from every section of this country to join me in that cause.

BATES: Payne did just that. She flew to Selma and participated in the third march, the one demonstrators were finally able to complete. In his new book "Eye On The Struggle," biographer James McGrath Morris chronicles Ethel Payne's life. Morris says long before Payne became a professional journalist, she was behaving like one, even as she worked in Japan as a service club hostess shortly after World War II.

JAMES MCGRATH MORRIS: She went and interviewed Japanese leaders. She watched the interaction between African-American soldiers and Japanese women. She chronicled the growth of babies from these relationships, which were called brown babies because of their mixed race.

BATES: And her reporting was so good, the Chicago Defender - at that time, black America's most important newspaper - published the story. James Morris said it got a lot of attention stateside.

MORRIS: And a lot of attention with the commanders in charge in Japan who were not happy with this kind of press coverage.

BATES: That story got her kicked out of Japan, but led to a full-time job at the Defender. After a couple of years, Payne was moved to Washington to cover politics in the White House. As one of only two black women in the Press Corps, Payne stood out. She wasn't afraid to ask President Dwight Eisenhower pointed questions about race. In this tape from the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, he's responding to Payne's query as to whether his administration would support desegregation of interstate travel.


PRESIDENT DWIGHT EISENHOWER: Well, I don't know what right you say that you have to have administration support. The administration is trying to do what it thinks to be believed decent and just in this country.

BATES: A few years before she died, Payne told documentary filmmaker Melvin McCray she wasn't concerned with being liked.


PAYNE: I was not there for decoration. I was there to get information, dispense it and to ask probing questions.

BATES: Kathleen Currie interviewed Payne several times in 1987 as part of an oral history project for the National Press Club Foundation. She says Payne was not a diva or a pushover.

KATHLEEN CURRIE: She was someone who really had a very good sense of what her role was, what her worth was.

BATES: Eventually Payne left the defender, but continued reporting. Her work took her around the country and across the globe. In 1972, she became the first black commentator for CBS for radio, then television. She told C-SPAN that newsrooms everywhere needed to be more diverse from the top down.


PAYNE: We just do not have enough of minority representation at the policy level. It makes a great deal of difference because it influences the way the news is dispensed, the way the news is handled.

BATES: In later life, Payne spent a fair amount of time trying to make that happen. She mentored dozens of young journalists of color. Kathleen Currie says while Ethel Payne began her career at a time when few women and virtually no women of color were encouraged to have journalism careers, she not only survived as a reporter, she became a trailblazer.

CURRIE: There was just no way that doors opened easily for her, but she figured a way in.

BATES: And then pushed the door wider so others could follow. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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