Fare Thee Well: Les Payne, Pulitzer Prize Winning Reporter and Editor Was a True Giant

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Randall Pinkston, former CBS and Al Jazeera correspondent, Tamara Payne, Les' daughter and Les, enjoy a laugh. Tamara Payne collection--Facebook 

[Speaking Truth To Power]

 

Last Tuesday morning, I sent a series of texts to Black Star News publisher, Milton Allimadi, regarding the recent shooting of a 13-year-old girl, in Mississippi, by her nine-year-old brother. 

Given the racial angle, I was concerned how this story might play out in media, and politics, considering the current debate around guns that has spurred youth activism since the Valentine’s Day massacre at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I had found Facebook pictures of the victim and her brother, confirming both were African-American.

How, I wondered, would this story be covered, if at all, within the press as America re-engages in heated discussions about gun-control? 

Milton’s response wasn’t what I expected. It had nothing to do with the topic of my texts. Instead his text read: “Les Payne passed away last night. Had heart attack.” He was 76. 

Instantaneously, this message’s magnitude turned my Tuesday into one of those difficult days we all dread. Instinctively, I knew Milton was devastated by this loss. 

Milton always made it known how much he respected and loved Les Payne, like another great who joined the ancestors before him: Gil Noble. After Gil joined the ancestors on April 5, 2012, I knew losing Les would be a very difficult pill to swallow. 

Saddened by this news, I started to reflect on the impression Les Payne made on me. Back in 1994, I moved to New York from the U.S. Virgin Islands to pursue journalism studies.

From early on, I was a fan of Long Island’s Newsday newspaper. Their editorial and op-ed pages were fantastic. The diversity of voices and perspectives there was refreshing and enlightening. 

After a while, I found myself always gravitating to two particular people: Jimmy Breslin and Les Payne. Eventually, I would meet them. They both were brutally honest truth-tellers who always tackled tough issues.

Heated controversy was often created by their commentary. Les’ mantra of “Don’t pull your punches, tell the truth and duck,” often led to the exposing of uncomfortable realities many people didn’t want to hear. 

Operating from the White suburban environs of Long Island, Les fiercely tackled racism head on. This often led to threats of violence. Former Newsday editor, Anthony Marro, has been quoted saying “we got to know the names of all the Suffolk police force bomb-sniffing dogs.” 

Les’ courageous crusade against racism was inspiring. Far too often, Black journalists who work for major mainstream media operations are usually afraid to speak honestly on racism. 

However, it took some time before I realized the enormity of Les’ journalism—and how much he meant to the rise of Newsday. Former Newsday editor Howard Schneider, dean of the Stony Brook University School of Journalism called Les “a seminal figure in the evolution of Newsday.”

Anthony Marro said, “I don’t think any other single person did more than Les did to move Newsday from being a very good suburban newspaper into a fully rounded paper that covered the state, the nation, the world.” 

Before taking the Newsday job, in 1969, Les was an Army Ranger in Vietnam who rose to the rank of captain. He also wrote speeches for General William Westmoreland the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968. Les had entered the military after graduating with a Bachelor’s in English, from the University of Connecticut, in 1964.

Born on July 12, 1941, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Les and his family moved to Connecticut when he was 12. In 1974, Les won a Pulitzer Prize for his part in Newsday’s 33-part investigation entitled “Heroin Trail,” which tracked heroin trafficking from Turkey to America.

Later, his reporting on apartheid angered the South African government so much that Les—and Newsday—were banned from South Africa, for over a decade.  Les had exposed the Boer government, on several fronts—including their massive undercounting the number of people killed during the Soweto Rebellion of 1976. 

Later, when Nelson Mandela was being released, Les was officially invited back. Unknown to the South African government, he had “managed to sneak back into South Africa for three weeks in the fall of 85 and reported on the new wave of rebellion in Soweto.” 

Les also maintained he had another Pulitzer—which he had apparently, initially, been selected to receive—stripped from him for that reporting on South Africa. In the introduction, to his “White Power, Black Revolt” report, from South Africa, Les said, “The editor of Newsday phoned with word that I had not won the Pulitzer Prize. The ‘good’ news that April morning had the international jury selecting my South Africa series as the clear winner of this most coveted award in journalism. However, the advisory board had overruled this decision without explanation.” Les’ said “Predictably, the board made a ‘safe’ choice that should please the White racists in Pretoria.” 

Les’ aggressive brand of journalism got him chased out of several African countries—sometimes at gunpoint. Les covered many important stories including: the assassination of Dr. King; the mistreatment of migrant farm workers, on Long Island; and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army; 

Later, I discovered his instrumental role as a co-founder of NABJ, which was created in 1975. 

In the early 2000’s, longtime reporter and columnist Earl Caldwell started broadcasting a show on WBAI’s 99.5 FM called the “Caldwell Chronicles.” WBAI’s listeners know how important Earl’s show was, given the passion he brings to the table. When Les started appearing on the show, it was like listening to a double dose of dynamite on radio. On one program that I recall, Les said he used his column as a “lead pipe” to pound truth into people. I made a point of never missing a show. 

Les was also a critic of so-call “objective journalism.” Les, rightly, understood that this mantra is often used in convenient instances when journalists don’t want to hold those in power accountable, or, tell unpleasant truths. Les’ erudition on many subjects was astounding. Radio listeners of the Caldwell Chronicles heard it on a regular basis. 

Later, I would also meet Earl Caldwell; around the same time, I crossed paths, in Harlem, with another interesting African journalist--Black Star News publisher Milton Allimadi. 

In early 2004, I started to write for The Black Star News. In the coming years, several legendary journalists would endorse the journalism being published in Black Star News. The two endorsements that most excited and energized Milton was that of Gil Noble and, later, Les Payne. On both occasions, I remember jubilant phone calls from Milton followed by the question: “do you know who I just talked to, who likes what we’re doing?” 

He was honored when Gil Noble started inviting him for regular appearances on "Like It Is," alongside Les Payne and Herb Boyd, the noted historian and Amsterdam News columnist.  

Some years ago, Milton held an event at the Brecht Forum, with Les as the keynote speaker. This would be the first time I would meet him in person. The most memorable moment that night was the scalding tongue-lashing Les delivered upon a Black audience questioner. This individual had just made derogatory statements regarding the character of African-Americans, in comparison to Blacks from the Caribbean and Africa.

Les was having none of it. When Les was done with him, this questioner was relegated to silenced embarrassment. 

In 2011, Les, a collector of art and an artist himself, held an art exhibition at Hofstra University, entitled “Soweto Art: From the Collection of Violet and Les Payne.” These artworks were purchased by Les from his travels in South Africa. Some of the artists included: Hargreaves Ntukwana, David Mbele, Velaphi Mzimba and Winston Saoli. 

On April 11, 2011, I went to this exhibit. This was the third time I saw Les. After the Brecht Forum event, he had spoken at one of Milton's Guerilla Journalism classes in Brooklyn at Sankofa Academy. That night, controversy ensued when Les tackled the Tawana Brawley topic. Les had maintained his investigation’s conclusion: Brawley was a liar. The Black Brooklyn audience didn’t exactly embrace his findings. 

At the end of his Hofstra art presentation, while conversing with him, Les gave me his contact information—and encouragement—to keep working on my writing. One of my cherished possessions is the copy he gave me of his “White Power Black Revolt” report. He signed it thus--“Colin, a colleague. Let’s keep at it. All the best, Les Payne.” 

For awhile after this, I didn’t see him. I knew Milton had several projects planned with him, that he wanted me to be involved in. We had talked about capturing Les’ life story on audio and video. The last time I saw Les, was a truly great experience. Little did I know it would be the last. 

In the summer of 2015, Milton and I made our way to Les’ Harlem residence for a night of networking with people from various fields in journalism and media. The night’s keynote speaker was actor Tim Reid, who starred in television shows such as: WKRP in Cincinnati; Simon and Simon; Frank’s Place; Sister, Sister; and That 70’s Show. That last meeting at Les’ re-energized me to continue becoming a better writer.

Although we have lost his physical presence, those of us who admired and loved the man must continue to fight, as Les did, for truth, equal rights and justice.  In Les Payne’s words, “Let’s keep at it.”  

Funeral Arrangements: The Abyssinian Baptist Church,  132 W 138th St, New York, NY 10030Phone: (212) 862-7474Viewing: March 26. 5PM to 7PMFuneral: March 27. 10AM

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