Les Payne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, died last Monday (Mar. 19) after suffering a major heart attack. His loss has shocked many who remember the veteran reporter and editor, including many he helped lead and mentor as the fourth president of the National Association of Black Journalists.
Leslie Payne was born July 21, 1941 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but raised primarily in Hartford, Connecticut. After leaving the University of Connecticut with a degree in English in 1964, Payne entered the U.S. Army and worked his way up to becoming an information officer, this after attempts to find work as a reporter were rebuffed because of his race.
Upon leaving the Army, Payne was hired in the late ’60’s by Long Island daily news outlet Newsday as an investigative reporter. In 1973, Payne was part of a reporting team that launched a 33-part series titled “The Heroin Trail,” which detailed how the dangerous drug made its way from the poppy fields of Turkey to the streets of New York. He shared the award win in 1974, and the stories were later morphed into a book.
Many of Payne’s stories covered not just the states, but also international concerns such as the 1976 Soweto Uprising. He continued his reporting on development of anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa into the mid-eighties. He also co-wrote a piece on the Symbionese Liberation Army, which was detailed in a 1976 book titled “The Life and Death of the SLA.”
In 1975, Payne and other Black journalist and media professionals founded the NABJ, and he became the organization’s fourth president in 1981, serving for two years. His no-nonsense approach to journalism while also reporting on issues that pertained to the Black diaspora globally became his hallmark.
Payne retired from Newsday in 2006, serving in several capacities as lead and associate editor on various beats. A few years ago, Payne wrote a column that railed against racism that took place across t Long Island where Newsday was based.
He is survived by his wife of 51 years, Violet, and their three children. Payne was 76.
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