There is no date on the black-and-white portrait of the Army Ranger, but knowledge about its subject places it sometime in the mid-1960s, when Les Payne was sent to Vietnam. What catches your eye about the photo, among a handful laid out for Payne’s March 27 funeral service at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, is the wry self-possession that stares back at you. Payne was only in his 20s when this portrait was taken. But even if you knew nothing whatsoever about what lay ahead for this soldier in the decades to come, you can tell that this is somebody who cannot be easily taken, or bought. He would carry this cool, dry gaze with him into situations that tested his fortitude, wit, and sense of fair play and that self-possession would come through, unshaken. That same face—older, grayer, with more facial hair—stares at you from the cover of the same program: amused, alert, and impervious to the supplication of fools, no matter who they were or where they came from; one upon whom nothing, or very little, was lost.
“Don’t pull your punches, tell the truth, and duck!” was a professional credo for Les Payne, who died March 19 of a heart attack at 76. He was the kind of journalist that people who studied journalism once wanted to be like when they grew up. Not for the achievements, though Les’s (we knew each other, so I think I’m on safe ground with the familiarity) were considerable: a Pulitzer Prize and honorary degrees from a handful of colleges, including his University of Connecticut alma mater. Rather it was because he was the journalistic equivalent of a professional athlete who could, as the sportscasters were once fond of saying, “do it all.”
He made his name as an investigative reporter, spending a week posing as a Southern migrant worker at a labor camp in Riverhead, not far from where Newsday, the Long Island daily that hired him in 1969, was headquartered in Garden City. His story exposed the exploitation of black workers at the camp by white employers. He was part of the team of investigators that won Newsday a 1974 Pulitzer Prize for public service for tracing “The Heroin Trail” from Turkey’s poppy fields to the streets of New York City and its suburbs. At one perilous point in their inquiry, team members strove to get close to “Mr. French Connection” himself, Marcel Francisci, the man described by federal authorities as “the financier, the arranger, the fixer” of heroin transactions beyond his Corsica base—and whose gangland affiliates Les and his team only barely managed to elude.
Les’s New York Times obituary, citing this account, noted that though he didn’t “nail” or even find Franscisi, his share of the Pulitzer earned him a profile in a Dewar’s Scotch advertisement. To this reader, this characterization, at best, shortchanges the blunt-edged fearlessness Les showed as a reporter compelled to roam far and wide by little more than curiosity. According to his son Jamal, it was bewilderment over the Symbionese Liberation Army’s 1973 assassination of Oakland school superintendent Marcus Foster that made him leave Long Island for California to see for himself what the SLA was all about before its 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst. In 1976, he went to South Africa where he filed dispatches on the Soweto uprising and its aftermath. (He went on to become a Pulitzer finalist for the series; controversially, the 1978 award went to someone else.) Four years later, Les returned to Africa to write about deadly tribal conflicts in Zimbabwe. While there, he was arrested by guerillas loyal to the newly elected president Robert Mugabe. Interrogated for three hours in a barbed-wire camp, Les was sentenced to death and was released by what he characterized in a 2008 article for AARP Magazine as a “last-minute stay secured by a government negotiating team.”