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Les Payne: Pulitzer Prize-winning African American journalist who put Long Island’s ‘Newsday’ on the map

One of the first black journalists at the paper, Payne consistently exposed America’s racial injustice including illegal segregation in schools

Christine Manby
Friday 06 April 2018 16:57 BST
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Payne made his contacts in the journalistic world after being drafted as a propagandist for the US army in the Vietnam War
Payne made his contacts in the journalistic world after being drafted as a propagandist for the US army in the Vietnam War (Alamy)

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Les Payne, who has died aged 76, was the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who put Long Island newspaper Newsday on the map internationally in the Seventies. He grew up in what he called “apartheid Alabama”. He spent his early years in Lampoon Bottom, a town whose claim to fame was that it was home to Robert Shelton of the Ku Klux Klan.

Klansmen were about the only white people who visited Payne’s hometown and they generally waited until after dark to do so. Payne recalled: “It was state terrorism. We were victimised, in many senses, as the Kurds are in Iran.”

The intimidation was so bad that in 1954 Payne’s mother, Josephine, took him and his two brothers to Hartford, Connecticut, in the hope of a better life. While there were no Klansmen riding past their house on horseback there, racial challenges persisted. When Payne told a school counsellor he was interested in becoming an engineer, the counsellor explained that “as a black person I should concentrate on an area [of study] where I could get a job”.

Eventually Payne did study engineering but later switched to his passion, English. Payne, who had learned to read aged three, was determined to use his talent with words to fight racial injustice.

“My whole idea was getting a career in which I could use what little talent, skill, intelligence I had to improve the condition of African Americans … what turned me to journalism was … I could combat racism in this country just by doing what reporters should do.”

On graduating, Payne was drafted into Vietnam as an air artillery defence lieutenant in charge of missiles. By some “fluke”, as he put it, he was spared the theatre of war as by the mid-1960s “VC [the Viet Cong] had no more planes to shoot down”.

Instead he became the “army’s version of a journalist... an information officer” – or, less charitably, a propagandist. He wrote speeches for General William Westmoreland whose job it was to present America’s brave face during the war.

In his army role Payne made contacts with journalists representing newspapers at home. On his return he was hired by Bill Moyers, Newsday’s young and unusually liberal publisher, as part of an intake of six African American journalists.

Payne soon made his name as an investigative reporter. He spent a week posing as a migrant worker at a labour camp to report on the plight of black workers from the South. He revealed how black people were “steered” by real estate agents to black neighbourhoods and uncovered the illegal segregation of schools in the southern US. He wrote about the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Though ostensibly shy and gentle, Payne had a daring streak that landed him in a team of three reporters following the journey heroin was making from Turkey to the streets of New York City. They survived dangerous brushes with the narcotics underworld – once by claiming to be writing a “five dollars a day” travel guide – to produce a 33-part report, “The Heroin Trail”, which won a Pulitzer prize in 1974.

As foreign correspondent, Payne reported from Idi Amin’s Uganda and the newly created country that was Zimbabwe. There he was detained for two nights at gunpoint after being mistaken for a spy. He got lucky and walked out alive.

Payne also spent time in South Africa. He covered the Soweto uprising in 1976, earning another Pulitzer nomination for his incisive reportage. (Almost 15 years later, he would interview Nelson Mandela.)

Payne damningly compared his own country with apartheid South Africa in 1986. “South Africa is learning this from the Americans,” he said. “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.”

Payne was devoted to the truth. In 1987, he braved flak from Al Sharpton for disputing the claims of Tawana Brawley, a black teenager who said she had been raped by four white men. Brawley’s claims were indeed later discovered to be a hoax.

Payne was relentless in his criticism of New York City Mayor Ed Koch and his uneasy relationship with the black community. Payne’s columns led Koch to accuse Payne of racism. However Payne lived to write a “true-logy” after Koch’s death which included the words, “Let the record show that blacks and Latinos – who constituted a majority of the City – were given a distant back-seat in regards to the policy goals, practices, and concerns of the Koch administration.”

A founding member and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, Payne’s reporting always remained true to his professional credo, “Tell the truth, and duck.”

After 38 years with Newsday, Payne retired in 2006. In 2009, his column for the newspaper, diminished by cuts, was unceremoniously dropped. In his retirement, he continued to write for online publications and worked on a biography of Malcolm X.

He is survived by his wife Violet and their children, Jamal, Haile and Tamara.

Leslie ‘Les’ Payne, journalist, born 12 July 1941, died 19 March 2018

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