A Journalist in Full
For a young black student fresh from "separate but equal" Alabama in 1954, the stately and old Hartford Public High School — with its red-brick towers, all-white staff and predominantly white student population — was an intimidating place. But ninth-grader Les Payne earned straight A's and the following fall sat down with his curriculum counselor to plan that year's course of study.
"So, Les, what would you like to be?"
"I don't think you should be an engineer, Les."
This snippet of dialogue from a long-running American tragedy is one of Les Payne's most vivid memories of Hartford. "He said as a black person I should concentrate on an area [of study] where I could get a job. I remember that as clearly as if he told it to me yesterday ... I thought it odd."
It seems odder still today, three decades later. The walls of Payne's high-ceilinged office at Newsday are decked with testimonials to his professional accomplishments. In one picture, he is shaking hands with President Jimmy Carter. A 1981 proclamation from the Connecticut General Assembly is hung so high that the small print is out of range. Beneath it, awards for his reporting and punditry are arrayed as thickly as house shingles.
One frame encases a younger, leaner Payne featured in a "Dewar's Profile" advertisement and under "Latest Achievement" is listed: "Winner of 1974 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Reporting." It is an accolade he nearly captured again a few years later, only to have the Pulitzer Advisory Board overturn his selection by the jury. Amid the glib, upbeat ad copy is this eye-opener: Most Memorable Book: Wretched of the Earth.
Although he has left the Scylla and Charybdis of poverty and racism largely in his wake, Payne is keenly aware that his successful odyssey is unusual among black men and women of his generation. "I survived it, but my survival is not typical; most black men don't survive it. A good deal of a successful black man's friends are in prison — not because they are criminal types, but because that is the way society is set."
Payne's career in journalism has been all about setting society straight, particularly the predominantly white and insular enclave served by the Long Island daily newspaper Newsday, where he has worked since 1969.
In 1981, he was promoted from national correspondent to national editor. Today, he is assistant managing editor for foreign and national news, supervising 26 reporters, six editors and 11 news bureaus around the world. But he is best known for his weekly column, which he began writing five years ago and which went into syndication in April.
His 850-word harangues are frontal assaults on "some very dearly held assumption of a lot of readers," says Ilene Barth, editor of the paper's Viewpoints section. They have inspired bushels of hate mail and death threats. The Village Voice reported that Payne's photograph has appeared on "at least one police pistol target range" on Long Island. In his columns he frequently fires salvos at New York City Mayor Ed Koch, and after particularly spirited pieces attacking people as diverse as George Wallace and Bernhard Goetz and Long Island real estate agents, Newsday has felt obligated to screen Payne's mail for bombs.
At 44, Payne still occasionally succumbs to the itch to climb back into the trenches and work as a reporter. And off he goes, no questions asked, as he did last fall, returning to South Africa to report on the upheaval there. During his first visit in 1976, his 11-part series convinced the South African government that neither Payne nor any other Newsday reporter would ever be allowed back in. But Payne devised a scheme to get around the prohibition.
In person, Payne is far less forbidding than his prose might lead one to believe — he is affable and shows traces of the shyness he has struggled long to overcome. His large eyes widened and his head rose as he describes how he hitched a ride back into South Africa on the coattails of a conservative "think tank" tour sponsored by Georgetown University. Five other Newsday staffers had failed to get visas via the front door, so Payne, "sort of on a dare," showed them how to use the side entrance.
As his fellow columnist and best friend at the paper, Ed Lowe, puts it, "He can wade into a place surrounded by reporters and come out with a story they didn't see." Lowe recalled their early days at the paper, when his friend would debate politics and racism with white reporters for hours: "There would always be six guys standing around him firing arguments and he would kick their ass. It was like a verbal karate movie; Payne was Bruce Lee and he was knocking guys all over the newsroom."
His winning record was not surprising; he had hones his skills in Texas, fresh from a tour in Vietnam, debating white folks who attended rallies for presidential aspirant George Wallace. These two traits — quick wits and a willingness, as they say in football, to "stick his nose into a pileup" — account for the respect Payne gets from his colleagues at the paper. The highest praise came from another fellow columnist, 1985 Pulitzer winner Murray Kempton: "Les refuses to worry about what anyone else might think of him. He acts like he is nobody's subordinate. And he acts like he has no subordinates below him. He has a perfect sense of equality."
The world Leslie Payne was born into in 1941 had little sense of equality. A sign in Lampoon Bottom, a wartime settlement on the fringe of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he spent his first years, proudly proclaimed that it was the home of Robert Shelton, a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Payne remembers seeing white people attired in sheets galloping on horses past the family home late one night. He was six years old and properly terrified: "It was state terrorism. We were victimized, in many senses, as the Kurds are in Iran or the Jews were in Germany." Other than the night riders, Payne "hardly ever saw white people down there."
By this time, he and his two older brothers were fatherless. He described how it happened in a piece written in May about his mother and his Southern roots: "I remember my father only vaguely. Schooling was bobby-trapped for the best and brightest black men; jobs were downgraded; dignity was place beyond reach. Pressured to be rabbits in the outside world, they acted, in the main, as lions at home. My mother was as independent as any lioness. So there was friction in the pride. Daddy left home."
His mother inherited her spunk from her own mother. Payne's grandmother had attended a Baptist college, took no sass from white or black, and imbued the family with a thirst for education and hard work. Payne learned to read at the age of 3. A cousin would read aloud to all of them from the works of black novelist Richard Wright, among others.
While Payne was an eighth-grade honor student in what he called the "apartheid South," his mother was scouting northern cities for a place to relocate. In his May article, Payne quoted his mother on the reasons: "I never wanted my kids to grow up down south ... I knew I didn't have the kind of boys that could make it down there ... I wanted to go somewhere I could get a good job, a nice place, and school [her children] like I wanted to." She picked Hartford over Chicago and Philadelphia, and in 1954 the family moved into the North End.
It was not Alabama, but it wasn't the land of milk and honey either. The first thing officials at Hartford Public High School wanted to do with Les Payne was to hold him back a grade. His mother, who was working two jobs to keep her family afloat, said "No," emphatically. So they gave him a test, which he passed. He would graduate with honors, but not in courses relevant to engineering. His tenth grade counselor had succeeded in steering him into subjects he considered less challenging, such as civics, social studies and biology. Out of class, Payne was a star on the track team and "ran with a lightweight street gang — mostly for protection." To supplement his mother's two paychecks, he delivered The Hartford Courant, picked tobacco in Windsor, and shined shoes at the railroad station.
Even as a boy, Payne instinctively went against the grain, triumphed over convention and peer pressure. No one told him to be different, to try harder than other kids, to storm not only society's insidious barricades but also his extreme shyness. Watching his mother and older brothers struggle for something better certainly influenced him, and ultimately there was a demonstration of family support and love that vaulted him out of poverty — and Hartford — altogether.
Things really began to change for Les Payne when his family realized that he was the chosen one. The notion was never put into words then. Today, his brother John says, "Les was more than book smart; he always had good instincts. He would just do things that would turn out right." His mother, whose remarried name is Josephine Johnson and who still lives in Hartford, recalls that he was always "something different, a boy for whom getting along came easier." He got along with white people, black people, any people, held his own in arguments but didn't make it personal, and he could learn — there wasn't a thing he couldn't learn. John, who had already given up high school sports to help pay the family bills, decided to forego his chance for college so his younger brother could have a clean, clear shot at the brass ring. "We knew he was the one, he had the stuff," says John Payne, who calls his sacrifice "the best decision I have ever made."
John, now a Simsbury resident who works at the Hartford Post Office, saw his brother spread his wings: "The kids we all hung out with found places to escape the boredom — bowling alleys or parties or whatnot — but Les found the library."
Payne himself describes his forays to the Hartford Public Library as clandestine exercises. He also would lie to his friends about his straight-A grades. While his everyday life was not dissimilar to theirs, there was one difference: he was already starting to analyze it. There were questions he badly wanted answers to, such as why so many of his friends were arrested and even in jail. He would discuss such things with John, who recalls: "We were lucky to escape the jails. We knew so many of our friends were arrested for nothing. We knew they didn't belong in jail. They were just black and in the wrong place at the wrong time. We would talk about things like that lying in bed. Les talked about serious things even back then."
Growing up black in Hartford back then meant the questions always seemed to outnumber the answers. It would have been easy to give it up, to get down and party rather than study and keep asking.
Walter Evans, a prominent Detroit Surgeon and Payne's best friend in high school, was another closet, card-carrying library patron: "Hauling books around wasn't exactly the thing to do in our crowd."
But they both bucked the tide — for reasons that were then unclear, however obvious they may seem today, Evans says: "Neither of us had any inkling we would get out of the situation we were in. We had no idea we would escape."
But Payne knew he was on to something, that his view of the world was right and that the thinking and behavior of white America was wrong. Books like Wretched of the Earth and The Autobiography of Malcolm X would later help him understand why. It wasn't even a question of whether the knowledge would necessarily set him free. It was simply intellectual curiosity. Why was this happening? That it would continue happening was assumed at first. "It was unthinkable when I was growing up there that Hartford would eventually have a black mayor," Payne says.
Later, at the University of Connecticut, he would finally take a shot at engineering, only to switch in midstream to English because of a growing interest in writing and journalism, the offspring of his passion for reading. Despite enthusiasm for his field, he knew his chances of landing a job were slim at best. No school counselor was needed to put the reality into words: "Society was telling me I could not be a reporter ... I mean I would never have dared to go to The Hartford Courant or The Hartford Times."
"Because I knew them to be racist papers. I had never known a black reporter to have worked for them. In fact, I had never met a black reporter in my life. It wasn't a field considered open to me as a black graduate ... with an ability to write and an interest in becoming a journalist."
The past 22 years have brightened that gloomy assessment somewhat. Today 6.4 percent of the Courant's full-time staff of reporters, editors and photographers are minorities, according to Associate Editor Irving Kravsow. Newsday, which is also owned by Times Mirror Co. and whose circulation of 580,000 makes it the ninth largest daily in the nation, has done better: with 11 percent minority representation. Payne does not credit management for the figures but rather an editorial association he organized: "We've done a lot of work here; by 'we,' I don't mean Newsday, I mean the Black Caucus."
Statistics at some newspapers are arrestingly low. Payne says that The New York Post has three black reporters and no Hispanics, despite serving a population that is nearly half minorities. A spokesman for the Post's personnel department disputed Payne's numbers but declined to provide figures.
A recent survey of the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that minority-group members currently constitute 6.3 percent of newsroom employees nationwide. A surprising 57 percent of all dailies did not have one minority employee. As Payne, who is president of the National Association of Black Journalists, analyzes it: "Most papers don't have any, aren't looking for any."
He insists that Newsday wasn't looking either until riots rocked U.S. cities in the late 1960s. "The riots, you know, opened up a lot of jobs," he says.
The Kerner Commission Report on the riots roundly criticized the press for its coverage, largely because the lack of black reporters limited understanding of and access to black communities. "The media essentially covered the riots behind the police as they came in, shooting in some places, and the fire departments as they went in, with bricks and beers cans and whatever raining down on them," Payne says.
Bill Moyers was the publisher of Newsday in 1969, when there was one, possibly two black reporters there, and he set aside six additional minority slots. Fresh out of a six-year hitch in the Army— where he wrote speeches for Gen. William Westmoreland, among other duties — Les Payne was hired.
It would not be long before he would prove the wisdom of equal opportunity. Liberated form his suburban beat after just three months, he was assigned to cover the Black Panthers, a radical group that had just been involved in a deadly shoot-out with police in Chicago. After that stint he returned to Long Island and went undercover as a migrant farm worker to report on abuses of black laborers up from the South for the growing season.
His willingness to go where others wouldn't or couldn't earned him a slot in 1972 on an investigative team covering the flow of heroin from Turkey, then the source of 80 percent of the U.S. supply, to junkies' veins in America. These stories would garner him and the team the Pulitzer Prize. While photographing a Turkish bar owned by a drug kingpin, Payne and an associate were accosted by some "low-level smugglers" bent on taking their camera and film, at the very least. Panic had to be avoided at all costs and a facile tongue came in handy. In their best Berlitz Turkish, they came up with a plausible excuse for what they were doing. "We told them we were travel writers doing a book on how to see Turkey on $5 a day, and that this was one of the places we were going to recommend," Payne says with a smile. "Then we all went inside and had a couple of drinks."
There are other, grimmer stories. In 1980, Payne returned to newly independent Zimbabwe, where he had previously been the first American reporter to enter guerrilla-held areas during the war of liberation. Typically, he set off into the bush to report on sporadic fighting between rival guerrilla factions garrisoned in compounds close to one another while they awaited integration into the national army. A sentinel spotted him photographing the camp and assumed he was spying. The two Africans accompanying Payne were members of the other tribe involved in the recent fighting. Case closed. "My death warrant was signed; I was going to be killed, it was all over," he says. "These two groups of people were at war, and I was with two from the wrong side."
Fortunately, soldiers from the other compound had seen the three being marched off at gunpoint and had called national army representatives, who arrived in the nick of time. It made for a swashbuckling news story, but Payne confessed to experiencing a severe case of career reevaluation while under the gun: "I was thinking 'Maybe I should have been an editor.'" Recalling it, he laughs, then turning serious again: "I mean, hey, you begin to cut deals with yourself."
Why not become an editor, indeed? He previously had found himself in tight spots involving the Tonton Macouites in Haiti, with Idi Amin's Ugandan security forces, and Corsican Mafiosi, to name just a few. His luck seemed to be wearing thin. Besides, he and his wife Violet had three children to consider. Within a year of his Zimbabwean adventure, he was named national editor and given a weekly column, which the Courant subscribed to in May.
It would quickly become apparent, however, that Long Island was not an entirely safe place to exercise freedom of speech, especially as Payne gives it a workout. To fully appreciate the violent reactions his Sunday fulminations engender — from nameless bigots to his most faithful reader, Mayor Koch — it is necessary to understand both his strategic thinking and his tactical deployment of words and phrases.
On the latter level, Payne is a general with few rivals. His arguments and opinions bristle with powerful metaphors, stinging epithets, and moral outrage. He is adept at capturing opponents' logic and flinging it back at them. Ed Lowe recalls a debate early on in Payne's tenure at Newsday between his friend and their boss, who asserted that he was having trouble finding "qualified black reporters." Payne shot back, "You haven't had any trouble hiring dozens of unqualified white reporters." Newsday now sponsors an annual jobs fair that brings aspiring minority journalists in contact with newspapers nationwide.
Reinforcing Payne's heavy artillery is a keen sense of the ironic and an eye for nuance. He once wrote of the Rev. Jesse Jackson
that he "showed the strain of a man who, perhaps once too often, had followed his instinct to do anything to get on television." Here is what he wrote upon George Wallace's tearful retirement from politics: "During his hell-raising days, Wallace had the face of a clenched fist ... for a time he gave voice to the savage impulse in the American spirit that every so often has a need to crawl brazenly up out of the bog ... Although Wallace never made it to the White House, he helped plant the fields later harvested by Nixon, the 'Moral Majority' and Ronald Reagan ... This legacy of shame and injustice is what this backwoods demagogue let loose in the country, and no amount of tears can put this viper back into the sack."
In a column titled "Local Real Estate Agents Enforce U.S. Apartheid," Payne commented on the practice of "steering" black home buyers away from white neighborhoods: "As an organized menace to social justice, the Long Island Realtors, along with their associates across the country, stand in the ditch alongside the Klan, the Aryan Brotherhood and, all too often, police associations."
From time to time — usually right after such unambiguous prose hits the streets — friends and superiors at the paper try to persuade Payne to alter his strategic doctrine of massive retaliation. They whisper in his ear words like this: "If you want to change white people's minds, why don't you try a little tenderness?"
It is like asking Gen. George Patton to take two steps back and one step forward. "I'm not trying to change racism by changing white folks' minds," is Payne's retort. What he is doing is dueling with prejudice and an overwhelming white power structure with the weapons of his choosing: his intellect and the English language. No blood is spilled, but the conflict is not totally nonviolent. In a column dealing with the mail he received after his offensive against the Realtors, Payne explained his position: "I work behind enemy lines. I write about issues most Long Islanders would rather ignore. I do my scouting for the Avenging Angel." As a result, some of the incoming missives are "intemperate enough to call in a fingerprinting unit," and "periodically, the newspaper takes to screening my bulkier mail and monitoring by telephone calls," Payne wrote.
Clearly not everyone likes him or agrees with him. Koch has called Payne "a racist" and accused him in a January letter to Newsday of making "a clear call to violence" in one of his columns "comparable to threats made by Louis Farrakhan." The piece had asserted that a "bullet ... has moved [George] Wallace, now in a wheelchair, to a straighter and narrower path."
Payne's penchant for inflammatory language landed him in court for remarks made on a New York television program about civil rights activist Roy Innis, who Payne said had "put a contract out on me" because of a story he had written. The columnist said he had been speaking metaphorically, and the $3 million libel suit was dismissed last fall. Nor is Payne reticent about tension between blacks and Jews, which surfaced dramatically during Jesse Jackson's run for president in 1984: "You can get more [of a reaction] on Long Island for making an anti-Semitic remark than for violating in the most brutal fashion black men, women and children." Payne's remark alluded to several incidents in which blacks had been burned out of homes after moving into white neighborhoods. Later, he would state half-seriously, "Some people will call you an anti-Semite if you don't laugh at Woody Allen movies."
His stinging condemnation of Bernhard Goetz and those who applauded the "subway vigilante" in January 1985 intensified his public feud with Koch and created tension between Payne and Newsday management. Payne stood his ground and wrote three consecutive pieces bombarding the "golden blond" gunman and his cheerleaders with questions such as: "At what distance and under what circumstances did Goetz shoot two teenagers in the back?"
A year later, his response to a colleague who insisted Koch "was speaking less ill of blacks and Hispanics" was to write that "Hizzoner" was "like a mugger between jobs."
In a column titled "Hate Mail and Threats Come with the Territory," Payne explained his approach to writing under pressure: "A columnist cannot summon forth social demons with one eye cocked over his shoulder. Writing an evocative column is akin to lancing a boil until it bursts."
Payne admits that his approach and perspective even as a reporter are different from those of his white colleagues: "Black reporters should have a different commitment and goal, they should be burning a different fuel." Payne's high octane recognizes no conflict between principles of journalism and his interest in black issues and countries. He subscribes to "Jeffersonian journalism," explaining: "We should be about afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, and there isn't a group in America more afflicted than black people. The best thing that can happen for blacks is for journalists to tell the truth about them — and other folks, too."
There is a also a sense that as the chosen one in his family — and as one of the premier black American journalists — he has a debt to pay. And the payments will never end. He described his column as "a singular attack on racism in all of its forms."
On a recent day, Payne held court in his office as colleagues entered to discuss issues ranging from a new London bureau chief to the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The faces were all white. At an afternoon gathering of top editors, Payne's was the only black face among 21 attendees. Still he moved easily in this world, and there were obvious indications of respect and camaraderie between him and his peers, some of whom came up through the ranks with him. After taking care of pressing business, Managing Editor Tony Marro lingered to ruminate on the "Yuppies who are taking over the newsroom." They agreed that the newcomers tended to be better writers (and better paid, too) than their generation, but the pair alleged that some of the new breed don't take to long hours or going into certain neighborhoods after the sun goes down. Payne commented that he lived in both worlds and knew how "to get along in suites and in streets."
He and his family still live in South Greenlawn, a middle-class black section of Huntington to which they were "steered" in 1969: "We were taken by real estate agents only to black communities. I was just out of the army and I had $10,000 to put down, and they were steering us."
The houses and front lawns leading to the Payne home are typical suburban Long Island — except all of the faces are black. The bus his two sons ride (his daughter, Tamara, attends Hobart & William Smith Colleges) is populated exclusively with black children, although the school it takes them to is more than 95 percent white, according to Payne. "South Africa is learning this from the Americans: You don't have to have signs — drinking-fountain signs and such — to segregate people ... I think America is the most successful experiment in the world for apartheid. It's done with subtlety but unerring certainty."
On the inside, the only facet that sets Payne's house apart from the suburban norm is the stunning assemblage of paintings, collages, and sculpture in stone, metal and wood. Several drawings are by Payne himself, who once toyed with the notion of majoring in art. The rest are either from Africa or by black artists. A large charcoal composition from South Africa, on a red-chalk background, shows three musicians united in song. Its color and vitality brighten the living room.
Payne finds some opportunity to indulge his passion for art and for first-edition books, but his career absorbs most of his time. His wife, Violet, a Columbia University MBA with a consulting and teaching career, has always lived with the notion that her husband might be off in a New York minute to flashpoint around the world, and for months at a time. For the series on heroin, Payne spent seven months in Turkey and Europe, returning in the middle for two weeks for the birth of their first son, Jamal. At the office he averages 10-hour days.
Payne says he works so hard partly because he still sees much to motivate him. He maintains that the discrimination he experienced in Alabama and Connecticut is alive and well, if more subtle today. Shortly after the family moved to South Greenlawn, for example, Payne's daughter and the other two black children in her first-grade class were immediately assigned to read from what their peers called the "dumb book."
It seemed to Payne that history was repeating itself, and he recalled the fire that was lit under him years ago when the guidance counselor told him he couldn't be an engineer. Even back then, Payne's brother recalls, Payne said, "Imagine how many other black kids he told that to."
Payne and his wife set the matter of their daughter's reading material straight in short order. "They already had low expectations for these kids because they were black," Payne says. "We went through this with each child."
Payne says many blacks still don't bother with schooling. He says the reasons are quite logical: "It isn't because they can't learn or don't want to, but because there's no reward in it."
He maintains that the world for blacks "has only changed to the extent that blacks have changed it. Oppression changes only to the extent that the oppressed refuse to accept it ... Things are going to change because we're going to change them."