Friday, February 20, 2015

James McGrath Morris

James McGrath Morris is an author, columnist, and radio show host. He writes primarily biographies and works of narrative nonfiction.

His newest works are Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, The First Lady of the Black Press and the best-selling Kindle single, Revolution by Murder: Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and the Plot to Kill Henry Clay Frick.

From Morris' Q & A with Kevin Nance for the Chicago Tribune:

Q: What would you say were some of the highlights of [Ethel Payne's] coverage of the civil rights movement?

A: When things started to happen in the South, she begged to be sent there, and at first the Defender refused because they were concerned about her safety. Perhaps the most significant moment was when she went to Montgomery right after the bus boycott. This was a time when the nation wasn't paying much attention; it was still not a national story. She went down there to cover it, and what she discovered was quite profound, which was that there was a new kind of leadership emerging in the South, where the clergy were taking over the movement.

Q: Another important aspect of her journalism at that was her writing style, which you describe as "folksy."

A: She understood her audience very well. You have to remember that African-Americans at the end of the 19th century were highly illiterate, and in the '50s when she was writing for the Defender, their literacy level and education level was far lower than whites. So she was constantly striving to write in a way that her readers would understand. I compare her to Ernie Pyle in World War II. It's a very personal form of journalism, and looking back at it, her reporting is diminished in the eyes of some because it doesn't have the analysis and the sophistication of some of the white reporters when they arrived on the scene. But they were writing for a different group.

Q: Another thing that distinguished her as a journalist was her relationship to the concept of objectivity. She saw herself as "an instrument of change."

A: She felt she was part of the story, so she abandoned the idea of objectivity. Whenever she asked a question about race, it involved her directly. She thought it was sort of fake to remain objective. Instead, she...[read on]
Learn more about the book and author at the official James McGrath Morris website.

The Page 99 Test: Eye on the Struggle.

--Marshal Zeringue