Tuesday, February 17, 2015

James McGrath Morris's "Eye on the Struggle"

James McGrath Morris is an author, columnist, and radio show host. He writes primarily biographies and works of narrative nonfiction.

His newest works are Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press and the best-selling Kindle single, Revolution by Murder: Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and the Plot to Kill Henry Clay Frick. His other books include Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power—which the Wall Street Journal deemed was one of the five best books on American moguls and Booklist placed on its 2010 list of the ten best biographies; The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism—a Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars.

Morris applied the “Page 99 Test” to Eye on the Struggle and reported the following:
From page 99:
...used the tactic in the Senate to forestall federal civil rights legislation. Lehman’s speech deepened the chasm between the Southern and Northern delegates and increased the likelihood of a floor fight.

“I should regret a floor flight,” Senator Lehman said, “but I will press for a strong civil rights plank even if it makes such a battle inevitable.”

Lehman wasn’t the only national figure that Payne witnessed campaigning for civil rights. “Fighting also for the respect of individual dignity and first class citizenship for Negro Americans was Minnesota’s fiery senator, Hubert Humphrey,” Payne noted. It was, indeed, an unusual spectacle for Payne. With the exception of Chicago African American congressman William Dawson, who was on the platform committee, here were white politicians publicly fighting to advance the cause of civil rights. They were motivated by the changing color of voters, Payne concluded. Keenly aware that the Negro vote had delivered Ohio and Illinois in the 1948 election, they wanted to capture a larger share of the vote. The fight, Payne concluded, “demonstrated the vast importance of the Negro vote.”

Instead of seeking time with the Democratic leaders who supported her cause and rewarding them with flattering pieces, Payne took an entirely different tack. She decided to enter the enemy’s lair. She sought an audience with the die-hard segregationist Senator Richard Russell Jr., one of the four leading candidates for the presidential nomination. His membership in the Democratic Party, like that of other segregationists, raised the hackles of the NAACP. “If the Democrats win,” asked its magazine Crisis, “won’t the Dixiecrat-GOP coalition kill civil rights?”

Slender in build, with a Roman nose and large ears made more pronounced by his close-cropped hair, Russell graciously received Payne in his ninth-floor room of the Conrad Hilton. He represented the bulwark of resistance to federal civil rights laws and was the wiliest of opponents. When he first reached the Senate in the 1933, Russell had taken upon himself to become the chamber’s most astute parliamentarian. He skillfully opposed every effort that he deemed...
I feel a bit like I won the literary lottery because page 99 of Eye on the Struggle captures well an important moment in Ethel Payne’s journey into covering national politics. Here she is at the 1952 Democratic National Convention witnessing for the first time white politicians fighting over civil rights and a preview of what she would see the following year when she goes to Washington as a correspondent for the Chicago Defender.

Secondly, what I so like about this moment is that Payne who has only about one year of reporting experience under her belt demonstrates incredible journalistic acumen. She decides to interview the segregationist and presidential candidate Senator Richard Russell from Georgia. To modern readers this may not seem like much of a challenge, but this was an era when segregationists felt free to use the word “nigger” on the floor of the United States.

So on this one page readers see both Payne’s early education about national politics and her remarkable skill that took her in a few years from being a cub reporter to the most important black reporter of the decade providing reporting for a national black readership hungry for stories that could not be found in the white media. From publicly challenging President Eisenhower’s commitment to desegregation in the 1950s to capturing the lives of black troops in Vietnam in the 1960s, she became known simply as “the First Lady of Black Press.”

Her unflinching yet personable reporting enlightened and activated black readers across the country and made her a trusted ally of civil rights leaders. When she worked in the ranks of the virtually all-white Washington press corps, she gave black America a voice and presence at the highest reaches of power that could not be ignored.

Ethel Lois Payne’s story offers a gentle reminder that the great power of a free press rests on a simple notion of rendering those in power accountable. Payne’s journalism invoked none of the angry name-calling fashionable in the news media today. Rather, she brought only one weapon with her when she gained access to the halls of power on behalf of her readers. It was to ask questions that others were not asking.

And she got answers.
Learn more about the book and author at the official James McGrath Morris website.

The Page 99 Test: Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power.

--Marshal Zeringue