Eye on the Struggle

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Eye on the Struggle
480 pages; Amistad
Why haven't we heard of Ethel Payne until now? Born in 1911 on Chicago's South Side, Payne, granddaughter of slaves and daughter of a Pullman porter, left her quiet job as a library clerk at age 39 to work as a reporter for the seminal black newspaper the Chicago Defender. Her ambition was to become an "instrument of change," covering the news not from the perspective of the mainstream press, but from that of a woman who knew a thing or two about racial injustice. Her hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, routinely used words such as "darky" to describe black citizens. Payne wanted to help create a new lexicon, to speak directly to an audience who cared about what she did: "We are soul folks and I am writing for soul brothers' consumption," she once observed. Over four decades, she witnessed and wrote about key moments in the civil rights movement and always spoke truth to power, as when she called for President Dwight D. Eisenhower to support desegregation.

In James McGrath Morris's compelling biography, Eye on the Struggle (Amistad), this "first lady of the black press" finally gets her due. Morris lovingly chronicles Payne's dedication and her rise to become one of the few black members of the White House press corps and the first African American television commentator on a national network. Payne was in the room when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. For her, being a reporter was about "stretching the horizon of the heart." Never content simply to "live and let live," she sought always to engage, fight and make change.
— Claudia Rankine