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An Appreciation

Trailblazing black journalist Les Payne showed no fear in pursuit of the truth

He’ll be remembered as an NABJ founder and Pulitzer Prize winner, and a mentor and role model to many

My friend Les Payne is dead.

During his 38-year journalism career, Les had many close encounters with death. He once escaped the Mediterranean island of Corsica just minutes ahead of the thugs whom a drug dealer sent to his hotel to “turn out his lights.”

On another occasion, Les found himself staring down the barrels of guns when a car he was riding in was stopped by soldiers of a rival guerrilla army faction in the newly created African nation of Zimbabwe. Les was held for hours and threatened with execution by an officer who mistook him for a spy.

Then, while in California trying to make contact with the Symbionese Liberation Army, a black revolutionary group that kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, Les was confronted by a gun-wielding SLA member who ordered him into a phone booth. Les had only minutes to live, the man said, if he couldn’t get someone on the phone at Newsday, the Long Island, New York, newspaper where he spent his entire career, to prove that he was a journalist.

And there was the late-night run-in that Les had with two of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s secret policemen that produced another life-threatening experience for him.

But when Les Payne died Monday night at age 76, it was a heart attack that quickly snatched the life from his body as he stood on the steps of his home in Harlem — not the wrath of those who hated his fearless brand of journalism.

I can’t think of a better ending for a man who was, arguably, the most consequential American journalist of the past 50 years.

Les didn’t just report the news; he often uncovered the story behind the headlines that many journalists missed. He was a bare-knuckles reporter who braved the dangers of journalism. More often than not he worked alone, far away from stampeding herds of journalists. “Wherever you see groups of journalists milling about, there is no news. All you’ll find in places like that is the stuff that people in power want you to know, not the stuff they’re hiding from you,” he once told me.

In four decades of reporting and editing, Les found a lot of what powerful people were hiding.

In 1970, he went undercover to get an up-close look at the mistreatment of black migrant workers on a potato farm on Long Island. A native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Les was no stranger to that kind of labor. As a child, he picked cotton alongside his grandmother on an Alabama farm where the poorly paid black workers were expected to work from dawn to dusk — or, as the old-timers say, “from can’t see, to can’t see.” Les’ story brought improvements to the conditions under which Long Island’s migrant laborers worked.

When heroin deaths spiked in New York City during the early 1970s, Les and two fellow Newsday reporters tracked the flow of heroin, as he often said, “from the poppy fields of Turkey, through the French connection and into the veins of junkies in Harlem.” The 33-part series won them the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for public service.

The following year, Les came together with 43 other black journalists in Washington, D.C., to create the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). They wanted to use their collective muscle to push for the hiring of more black journalists and better coverage of black communities across the nation.

But when Chuck Stone, the group’s first president, called for the drafting of bylaws, Les, who questioned the need for such organizational structure in the fight for black rights, snapped, “We don’t need bylaws. We need to kick some behinds.”

Using his journalistic voice to kick butts was something Les delighted in doing. He did it as an investigative reporter in his coverage of the black liberation movement in Africa. In reporting on the murderous rule of Amin in Uganda, Les called it “a holocaust” — which caused his encounter with Amin’s heavies.

He kicked butt in his coverage of South Africa’s Soweto uprising when he visited funeral homes throughout that black township to prove that the death toll of blacks killed by the gendarmes of that pigmentocracy was substantially higher than what the white apartheid government was telling the world.

Les kicked butt in this country too. His reporting on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. poked holes in the government’s conclusion that James Earl Ray acted alone in taking the life of the civil rights leader. His coverage of the presidential campaign of Barack Obama also pummeled some behinds.

During the 2016 NABJ convention, Les tried to clear from Obama’s road to the White House one of black America’s political toll-takers: “Proving that he is as immune to irony as he is to shame, the Rev. Al Sharpton strutted onto the stage as a panelist for the annual W.E.B. DuBois Lecture. That most vital American scholar of the last century would likely have viewed Sharpton as a noisy answer for which there is no known question.” Ouch!

But Les was no sycophant for any politician. I remember standing with him in Denver’s Mile High Stadium on the night of Aug. 28, 2008, when Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. After allowing himself to smile broadly at the end of Obama’s speech, Les turned to me, and with a tilt of his head and a stare he said: “Just remember, the job of the black journalist is to be a watchdog, not a lap dog.”

I’m proud to have been his friend of 43 years. Les guarded his friends as much as he nurtured his friendships. When Bill O’Reilly linked Randall Pinkston to jihadist terrorists because he worked for Al-Jazeera, Les wrote an open letter to the then-Fox News talk show host.

“Randall Pinkston is too much of a gentleman to answer your on-air slander against him; so I will,” he said. “You have chosen … to question the patriotism of this black journalist born in apartheid Mississippi, who desegregated the local TV station with the assistance of Medgar Evers … I’m sure Randall’s long, patriotic family struggle as African-Americans up from slavery has no meaning whatsoever for you. As the son of Irish immigrants who were extended white privileges, albeit from the dredges, you have ascended the media feeding chain with a sense of fairness as meager as your talents.”

History should not be allowed to forget Les, as it has so many other blacks who championed the race. We owe it to him not only to thank him for his service but also to emulate his determination to be a truth-teller in a profession that more than ever before needs a Les Payne.

DeWayne Wickham is dean of the School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State University. For 30 years, until his retirement last year, his syndicated column appeared weekly in USA TODAY.