Les Payne, a founder and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists and a Pulitzer Prize winner, died March 19 as a result of a heart attack. He was 76.
This undated photo shows Les Payne, a journalist for nearly four decades with Newsday. The newspaper reported Tuesday, March 20, 2018, that Payne died unexpectedly Monday night at his home in Harlem. He was part of the Long Island newspaper’s reporting team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for a series titled “The Heroin Trail.” (Ken Spencer/Newsday via AP)
Payne was a retired editor and columnist at Newsday, based in New York City. He was hired by the newspaper in 1969 as an investigative reporter. In 1973, he helped to write “The Heroin Trail”, a series of 33 articles that detailed how heroin originated in the poppy fields of Turkey and ultimately ended up in New York and other urban areas. The series earned Newsday the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
Growing concerns regarding the paucity of African Americans in newsrooms in large newspapers, radio and televisions stations led Payne and a number of other Black journalists to found NABJ.
NABJ President Sarah Glover called Payne “a trailblazer” and his work “inspiring and encouraging.
“NABJ founder and President Les Payne was a legendary journalist whose eloquent writing brought passion and truth-telling to an industry too often tone deaf to issues impacting communities,” Glover said. “Payne fought to change that with NABJ’s other illustrious founders. Founder Payne’s bold words and writings showed us why it’s important to be a present Black journalist in the newsroom every day.”
She added, “He was a quiet, courageous and loving leader. His legacy lives on in us.”
Payne wrote about South Africa’s Soweto Uprising in 1976 and the Pulitzer Prize jury selected him to win the award, but the organization’s advisory board overrode the decision with no explanation.
Payne became a columnist for Newsday in 1980 and it went into syndication in 1985. Despite being barred from South Africa because of his strong anti-apartheid views, he visited the country in 1985 to write about the changes that took place since he left there nine years before.
Payne served as the newspaper’s national editor and assistant managing editor for foreign and national news, also. He retired from Newsday in 2006 but wrote a column for it until December 2008.
A native of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and an early life resident of Hartford, Conn., Payne got his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Connecticut in 1964 and went to work for the U.S. Army where he wrote speeches for its generals and managed its newspaper.
One of the lives that Payne touched was that of William Rhoden, a retired New York Times sports columnist who is a writer-at-large for “The Undefeated,” an ESPN-supported website that explores the intersection of race, sports and culture. Rhoden, who worked at the AFRO under the late legendary sports editor Sam Lacy from February 1972 to August 1973, told the AFRO that Payne’s death shook him.
“I am still stunned at the news,” Rhoden said. “He was a larger than life figure as a human being and as a journalist. He was a great role model, mentor and a better friend.”
Rhoden said he met Payne while working as a journalist with the Baltimore Sun and they eventually became neighbors in Harlem. He said he was impressed with Payne’s passion for African-American issues.
“He was always fighting for the rights of Black folks,” said Rhoden, who wrote the compelling book “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” which discusses how Black athletes are financially exploited. Rhoden added, “He will be sorely missed. We need that type of fighting spirit.
He had a great life.”
Violet Payne, Payne’s widow, agreed with Rhoden on how her husband mentored younger journalists of color.
“I’m very humbled to have been his wife,” she said. “I enjoy hearing about all the people that he inspired. He had such great hope for the younger generation to carry on.”