Ethel Payne, born August 14, 1911 was a freelance journalist and the first African American woman to become an international news correspondent. She covered issues pertaining to the political advancement and the social inequality among Blacks in America. An early crusader for African American civil rights, she remained a constant and vigorous political spokesperson in the fight to end racial discrimination. In her thirst for knowledge, and in her desire to share valuable information with the public, Payne, who would later receive international recognition for her endeavors, was dubbed the "First Lady of the Black Press" by the Washington Press Corps, of which she later became president in 1970.
While covering U.S involvement in the Vietnam War, Payne focused on the plight of the Black soldier and how issues, such as racial segregation and discrimination, remained relevant to life back home. In documenting the conditions of these soldiers, her aim was to "fully concentrate on the Negro effort," and to "paint an adequate picture of why they were in Vietnam." Later however, as a writer for the
, she remarked on her experience in covering the war as a failed attempt at reporting the overall immorality of it.
The daughter of a Pullman porter and a stay at home mother of 6, Payne, who desired to become a civil rights leader but was denied entrance into law school on account of her race, discovered her niche in journalism after being jailed for witnessing and questioning the brutal acts performed by a police officer on an African American man. After threatening to report the brutality to the press, she refused her approval for release, remained in jail and advocated for the liberation of the other detainees.
Her break into journalism came when she began organizing recreation and entertainment for African American troops stationed in Japan. In her diary, Payne transcribed accounts of the failed efforts of the U.S military during the war, which had later been published in the
. Despite the discrimination she encountered from high ranking officials in the U.S government, Payne was offered and accepted a full-time position with the Defender in 1951.
Along with her work as a Vietnam War correspondent, Payne became involved in various endeavors to move her career in journalism. During her time as White House correspondent from 1962-1966, Payne led the fight to end the segregation of interstate travel, immigration quotas, and discrimination in federal housing . Ethel was also the first African American woman to host network news by becoming a political commentator for the CBS aired program "Spectrum" in 1972. Persistently involved in international politics, Payne in 1970 completed a 10-nation tour of Africa with Secretary of State William P. Rogers, and a 6-nation tour with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger six years later. She covered several Democratic National conventions, and witnessed President Lyndon B. Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Over her lifetime, she has received dozens of awards and honorable mentions for her political involvement and activism for African Americans, and her legacy continues to live on today. In 2002 the United States Postal Service honored Ethel Payne by issuing her a 37-cent stamp, and each year aspiring journalists wishing to gain experience on international reporting in Africa are awarded the Ethel Payne Fellowship.
On May 28, 1991 Ethel Payne died of a heart attack in her home in Washington, D.C. She is survived by close relatives, as she forfeited marriage and children for the sake of her work. She was commemorated as one of the 100 most influential correspondents by the National Association of Black Journalists, and remained, untill her death, a longtime advocate in the struggle to bring about change, and to correct the inequalities and racial injustices in the world.