The extraordinary life of Les Payne

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It would be difficult to conjure a more arresting rebuke to the current rash of racists and white nationalists —and their enablers in high places— than to remember the life of Les Payne, 76, who died on March 19.

Payne, who attended Hartford High School and the University of Connecticut and served his country in Vietnam, rose from challenging circumstances to become a journalist of the highest rank at Newsday, where he worked for nearly four decades. He was  an investigative reporter, editor and columnist who won one Pulitzer Prize and was nominated for another.

Payne sent dispatches from places where others dared not tread, or simply couldn’t get to, such as apartheid South Africa, along the heroin trail in Turkey, or war-torn Zimbabwe. When the front door was closed, he would locate a side entrance.

It is not hyperbole to state that Payne’s career in journalism is reminiscent of Jackie Robinson’s in baseball: he knocked down barriers and paved the way for others to follow him. He was undeniably brilliant at his job. He could emerge from a scrum of white reporters (virtually all reporters were white when he started out) with a story or an angle that everyone else had missed. He knew how to get along with all kinds of people, whether in suites or in streets.

Later in his career, when Payne’s duties included writing a syndicated column, his punditry bristled with the outrage of a person who knew firsthand how racism could ravage people’s lives. He was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where nightriders hiding beneath white sheets occasionally would gallop through the neighborhood. In 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal” school segregation to be illegal, his family joined the great exodus of African-Americans from Dixie to northern cities like Hartford. Such places were purported to be “the “promised land,” but up north racism simply took subtler forms.

Hartford High School, whose enrollment then was overwhelmingly white, wanted to hold Payne back a year, but his mother insisted he be given a test. He aced it and proceeded to earn straight A’s all four years. But along the way, a curriculum counselor would urge him not to pursue engineering-related courses because that was a field that was not open to blacks. Of course, a lot of fields were not open to African-Americans then, journalism among them.

In 1969, fresh from Vietnam and with cash in hand, Payne went house hunting on Long Island and was “steered” to existing black neighborhoods. Later he wrote about the practice in vivid, unequivocal prose. 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.”

After such fiery commentary, Payne received death threats, and Newsday took to screening his mail and examining incoming packages to be on the safe side.

While Les Payne was relentlessly advancing his own career, he also devoted himself to the need of diversifying his profession. He was a founding member and served as president of the National Association of Black Journalists. When he was hired by Newsday in 1969, black reporters at American newspapers were as common as orange at a St. Patrick’s Day parade. In 1968, the Hartford Courant stood out because it actually had a single reporter of color.

I met Les Payne in 1986, when I wrote a profile of him for the Courant’s Sunday magazine, Northeast (now defunct). Given the incendiary rhetoric of his columns, I was somewhat surprised to find him to be an eminently affable and engaging person. As a colleague pointed out, Payne had the remarkable talent of being civil even while fiercely debating issues, as he did with Confederate Flag-waving supporters of presidential candidate George Wallace at a rally in 1968. Among other admirable attributes, Les Payne was a brave man.

I spoke with him again this past January for an article I was writing on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. We had a wonderful, wide-ranging conversation. We laughed as we caught up on one another’s respective lives and bemoaned the ravages of time. He was as thoughtful, insightful and delightful as I remembered him.

He pointed out that as tragic as the riots of the 1960s were, in his opinion they resulted in substantial changes that otherwise would not have occurred. They woke America up. Businesses, like Hartford’s big insurance companies and newspapers like Newsday, started to hire and seek out African-Americans in significant numbers for the first time —and not just for menial positions such as janitor or dishwasher.

In short, without the turmoil of the 1960s, the chances that Les Payne would have landed a job at Newsday, or even in journalism, were remote. He described the prospects of aspiring black journalists in that era this way: “Most papers don’t have any, aren’t looking for any.”

Imagine how many people like him have been lost in the rip tide of racism over the years. Why would anyone, much less a nation, want to keep a person like Les Payne down?

David Holahan is a freelance writer from East Haddam.


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