The daughter of a school teacher and a railroad worker, Ethel Lois Payne was born in Chicago, Illinois, on August 14, 1911. While working in post war Japan, she submitted free-lance articles describing the life and experiences of American service members. In 1951, Payne began reporting full-time for The Chicago Defender, becoming chief of the paper’s Washington bureau just three years later. She reported on many of the most important events of the Civil Rights movement, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1956, the struggle for desegregation at Little Rock Central High School in 1957 and the historic March on Washington in 1963. She was present when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1966, she provided coverage of African-American troops serving in Vietnam. Referred to as “The First Lady of the Black Press” by her peers, Payne was the first black woman to become an accredited White House correspondent (her questions were so difficult that President Eisenhower was afraid to call on her during press conferences). In 1972, she became the first black female commentator to be employed by a national news network, appearing on CBS radio and television for the next ten years. In the 1980s, Payne traveled to South Africa to protest apartheid and campaign for amnesty for Nelson Mandela. She is remembered as a tireless and fearless journalist and educator who helped further the cause of civil rights.
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