It was only a week ago that DeWayne Wickham spoke to his friend of over 40 years, Les Payne. Little did he know that would be the last time they spoke.
Les Payne, co-founder of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), died Monday from a heart attack. He was 76.
“Our friendship dates back to 1975 before NABJ was founded,” said Wickham, another NABJ co-founder and dean of the School of Global Journalism and Communication (SGJC) at Morgan State University. “We became immediate fan friends. We were drawn to each other by our interest in black history, our love of readings of many of the great black writers and our sense of duty as black journalist to the great concerns that permeate the black community.”
Payne, a Pulitzer Prize winner at Long Island-based Newsday, also co-founded the Trotter Group, a collection of some of the nation’s prominent African-American newspaper columnists, alongside Wickham.
Payne, who was an Army captain and wrote speeches for Gen. William Westmoreland, shared the Pulitzer in 1974 with a team of Newsday reporters for a series that followed heroin from its plant stage in Turkey to its sale and distribution in the United States.
“Les Payne always had this saying: A great editor has to fly the flag for his reporters,” said Wayne Dawkins, another member of the Trotter Group and an associate professor in the SGJC at Morgan State.
“He was real old school in that the editors had the reporters’ back. They (editors) put you out on the battlefield. They want you to ask the right questions and get the stories right. And when trouble comes from the authorities or the people in power, an editor won’t back down. They’re going to back their reporters and subordinates as long as they’re doing their jobs. He was from that era.”
Dawkins said Payne, a national and foreign editor at Newsday 40 years ago when there were few, if any executives of color in the newsroom, was a “fierce, ferocious editor.”
Wickham remembered Payne’s writings and lobbying on behalf of issues of interest to African-Americans.
“He was a race man. He was a race man as a person and he was a race man as a journalist,” said Wickham. “A race man is someone who W.E.B DuBois often talks about as being that person who champions causes for their race.”
“Les was a race man, he pushed for change in his newsroom, he pushed for change in terms of the employment policy at Newsday, he pushed for change in terms of the way Newsday covered events…”