While tennis great Arthur Ashe broke racial barriers in South Africa in 1973 by becoming the first black to compete in a pro event there, Les Payne moved along “The Heroin Trail” investigation that year, tracing the flow of heroin from Turkey’s poppy fields to the streets of New York City. Trust me, there is a connection.
Ashe’s application for a visa to enter South Africa was denied in 1969 and 1970. After spending the next three years lobbying to have South Africa removed from Davis Cup tennis competition because of its apartheid policies, Ashe got his visa. He insisted that seating for his matches would not be segregated and that condition, too, was granted.
Three years later, Les concluded that the Soweto township, where hundreds of black South African students and children were killed protesting the government’s apartheid system, would be his next stop. He looked for someone in Newsday’s “toy” department to help secure his flight to South Africa. “Think your buddy Ashe might help me get a visa?” Payne asked me.
“Only one way to know for sure,” I said. “I’ll ask him.”
Ashe and I first met as teens in Virginia competing against each other in a 1959 Maggie Walker High (Richmond) vs. Phenix High (Hampton) team tennis match. We faced each other five times, including in the final of the 1960 Virginia Negro State Championships. And the winner of every match was …? Good guess. We kept in touch by mail during our college years, and in 1968, I connected briefly with then Army Lieutenant Ashe when he was in Vietnam on tour with the U.S. Davis Cup team. He once visited our Huntington, New York home and stayed for dinner during my Newsday years (1970-77). We bumped into each other occasionally at tennis social functions in New York.
During one of our chats, I mentioned that a Newsday colleague, Les Payne, wanted to cover the Soweto uprising in South Africa. “He needs a visa. Think you can help?” “Maybe,” he said. Arthur knew that Les was on the Newsday investigative team that won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for “The Heroin Trail”. He promised to reach out to his South African contacts. A couple of weeks later, Les phoned and thanked me for coming through.
South African officials knew that Les was an investigative reporter. Upon his arrival in-country he was warned that Soweto was off limits. A government escort was assigned to accompany him on a month-long itinerary, which included visits to gold mines, friendly black homelands, factories where jet planes were produced, etc. After three weeks, Les ended his guided tour and headed to Soweto. Like most black children growing up in the pre-Civil Rights south, Les had experienced his share of segregation and racism in his Alabama hometown of Tuscaloosa. Life under apartheid was far worse. “That kind of racism was an eye-opener even for me,” he said.
In a Newsday story with the headline, “Journey into the Heart of Darkness,” Les described the violence that ensued after 20,000 students protested the use of the Afrikaan language in their Boers-run Bantu schools. Les wrote: “Hector Pierterson, 12, was the first to be dropped dead – and martyred – by police gunfire. For weeks and months, the school children set their bodies against police truncheons, tanks and automatic weapons. It was this war against the children that the South African government was so determined to keep away from the eyes of the world. White correspondents, the only ones U.S. media sent abroad, were routinely barred from Soweto and other off-limit black townships. Most of their “facts” came directly from the government. I took every advantage of indistinguishable skin-color and spent most of my days and nights reporting among the African residents of Soweto, Langa and Guguleto.”
After Les had slipped into off-limit territory, I received a peripatetic postcard from him. I felt his stress as I read his words. He wrote: “Having a challenging time in S.A. – wish I were here. Whatever happened to the good old claymores? Your old buddy was responsible for all this – hear he plans to enter politics – tennis racquet and all. Give him my regards. I hear Dr. J is operating for the 76s!” les.
More than 300 white journalists from various countries filed stories about the uprising, but they never talked to the Africans. “They only talked to white people because the government had denied the media access to Soweto,” Les said. “South African officials told reporters that 250 to 300 students had been killed, but the reporters couldn’t confirm that because they were denied access to the bodies. The absence of an exact number of students killed troubled Les, mainly because Soweto residents assured him that the death total was considerably higher. “But they couldn’t document it. I spent three weeks knocking on the doors of undertakers, Inquest Court clerks, eyewitnesses and relatives,” Les said. “My shoe-leather reporting was rewarded with specific names, ages and circumstances of the police killings of more than 800 Africans.”
Most of Les’ colleagues at Newsday and other newspapers knew that he was a consummate journalist, relentless truth-finder, fearless and too often took life-endangering risks. The five-person Pulitzer Prize selection committee also must have been impressed with his work in South Africa. It voted unanimously to award the 1978 Pulitzer for investigative reporting to Les Payne for his 11-part series on the Soweto uprising. However, the committee was overturned by the Pulitzer Prize’s Review Board, without explanation. Instead, the Pulitzer was given to The New York Times entry that had been the committee’s fourth choice. Angered by the Review Board’s overrule, the selection committee expressed its disapproval publicly; investigations ensued, but the Review Board’s decision prevailed. Despite the Review Board’s rejection, Les’ South Africa venture was viewed by many as a major achievement in international investigative reporting. Les shared that assessment. “My career defining moment would be covering South Africa,” he said.
While his 11-part series didn’t receive the full recognition it deserved at home, Les savored the impact it had in South Africa. “I got Newsday and me banned from South Africa for more than a decade,” he said. “Every application for a South Africa visa from a Newsday reporter, photographer or editor was rejected with a caveat, which was if Newsday fired Les, future applications might be considered favorably.” Years later, the sanctions that Congress and other world leaders had imposed against South Africa until Nelson Mandela was freed caused the government slowly to shift away from apartheid. In 1989, Les was stunned when he received a call from South Africa’s general counsel, inviting him to return to South Africa in early February. The invitation only could mean one thing: Mandela, an anti-apartheid political leader, would be set free after serving 27 years in prison.
Les was among the reporters granted personal interviews with Mandela. He marveled at the reception Mandela received from the crowd. “No one could match the favorable impact that he had on his countrymen, even though they couldn’t mention his name or see his picture in any newspapers all those years,” Les said. “He was like a man coming back from the dead. That’s the way the Africans saw him. He had been gone for 27 years, a martyr to the cause and the martyr had come back to life.”
A year later, Ashe, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, also received an invitation to meet with Mandela in South Africa. Arthur accepted despite his diagnosis. “I was compelled to lie on my application for a visa … that I did not have an infectious disease. I try never to lie, but I lied,” Ashe said in Days of Grace. “I thank God that I lived long enough to see South Africa one more time.”
I believe that anyone who spends more than half a lifetime with a friend, who is also a hero and mentor, is lucky. Since I’ve had two friends of that ilk, color me blessed. Ashe was my Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King; Les, my Malcolm X. So different were they in personality, so similar in their desire to make this world a better place, especially for blacks. Each put a chink in the armor of South Africa’s apartheid system, adhering to the principles of their respective role models – Martin and Malcolm.
In his book Ashe wrote, “I learned to raise my eyes to the high moral ground to stake my future on it. I revered Martin Luther King, Jr. because on the question of race, no African American commanded that ground as splendidly as he did, with surpassing eloquence and (despite his human failings, which disturbed me) consistency of argument.” Ashe died Feb.6, 1993.
Les wasn’t always the proud, combative force he became as a journalist. The change occurred in 1963 after listening to Malcolm X speak in Hartford, Connecticut. He was one of only 60 blacks out of 10,000 students at the University of Connecticut. In his essay, “The Night I Stopped Being a Negro,” Les wrote, “By the end of the lecture, I felt—and knew—that something within me had changed, this time irreversibly. Whites henceforth would no longer be superior. Blacks—most important, I, myself—would no longer be inferior. This cardinal message, powerfully delivered to millions, would make Malcolm X a treasure for black liberation and a serious threat to white America. Until this June night, I had been imprisoned. But Malcolm X shook my dungeons, and, as a poet said, my chains fell off. I had entered Bushnell Hall as a Negro, with a capital N, and I wandered out into the parking lot as a black man.”
Les’ biography, “The Dead Are Arising, The Life of Malcolm X”, will be released Sept. 29, 2020. His daughter, Tamara Payne, completed the work after her father died two years ago.