At an early apex of the civil rights movement, just after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been found guilty of organizing the 1955 bus boycott, a 5-foot-3 journalist named Ethel Payne landed an interview with him in Montgomery, Ala.

“The eyes of the world are watching us,” King told Payne.

It is through Payne’s eyes that author James McGrath Morris deftly shows us the history of post-World War II America. As a longtime reporter for the Chicago Defender and other newspapers aimed at black readers, Payne’s life provides a refreshing prism through which to gaze at the second half of the 20th century.

I’m embarrassed to say I had never heard of Payne until reading this book 24 years after her death. As a lifelong journalist who grew up in Chicago, I had no clue about this dynamic journalism pioneer who went from the South Side to rub elbows with King, presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon — not to mention China’s Zhou Enlai and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, whom she interviewed while he was wearing his bathrobe in 1990 when she was 78.

“To most white Americans the black press was a voice unheard, an existence unknown or ignored,” said Enoch P. Waters, a Defender editor.

From her perch at one of the nation’s more than 150 so-called black newspapers, Payne enjoyed what she called her “box seat on history.” To wit, LBJ went out of his way to hand her one of his ceremonial pens in the White House East Room filled with white guys after signing the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Morris’ well-paced narrative not only walks readers through the civil rights movement’s inner workings, but he lets us tag along with Payne on her 13 journeys to Africa and trips to China, Vietnam and elsewhere.

The granddaughter of slaves and daughter of a Pullman porter, Payne never adopted a journalist’s objectivity. She frequently quoted Frederick Douglass: “Agitate, agitate, agitate.”

Her reporting grew aggressive and she never apologized for taking sides. “Somebody had to speak up,” she said. “So I saw myself as an advocate as much as being a newspaper person.”

Looking back years later, Payne said: “If you have lived through the black experience in this country, you feel that every day you’re assaulted by the system. You either go along with the system, which I think is wrong, or else you just rebel, and you kick against it.”

 

Former Star Tribune reporter Curt Brown is the author of “So Terrible a Storm,” and “The William Marvy Company of St. Paul.”