Kathryn Johnson, a trailblazing reporter for The Associated Press whose intrepid policy of the civil rights movement and other significant stories resulted in a series of legendary scoops, died Wednesday. She was 93.
Her niece, Rebecca Winters, said Johnson died Wednesday morning in Atlanta. Johnson was the only journalist allowed inside Martin Luther King Jr.’s house the day he was assassinated. When Gov. George Wallace blocked black students from entering the University of Alabama, she sneaked into pay his confrontation with federal officials. She scored exclusive interviews with 2nd Lt. William L. Calley Jr. before he had been convicted of his role in the My Lai massacre.
“I was never ambitious, really, anxious to make money …,” she told an aide for an AP oral history project in 2007. Johnson said she did not’ want to be bored and additional, “in most of my career, I really wasn’t.”
That career spanned a half-century, from the age of reporters racing one another to pay phones to the arrival of 24-hour cable television news.
She started covering King when he was a little-known Baptist preacher from Atlanta. She had also written about his wife, Coretta, who was a gifted singer.
The evening of April 4, 1968, Johnson and a date were on their way to the movies when news of the assassination came across the radio.
When she arrived in the King home, two coworkers were chatting with a police officer on the porch. The front door opened, and Johnson could see Coretta Scott King in a pink nightgown, standing in the hallway. “She spotted me and said, ‘Let Kathryn in,'” she remembered.
Johnson was in the home daily, providing the AP several scoops — such as a 11-hour beat over archrival United Press International on the funeral arrangements.
Born in Columbus, Georgia, Johnson graduated from Agnes Scott College, a private, all-woman school in Decatur, Georgia, in 1947. In December of that year, she dropped from the local AP office looking for a project; she had been offered a secretarial position.
Twelve years later, following the American Newspaper Guild interceded, Johnson was eventually given a writing project. She said she obtained the civil rights conquer because the guys “did not want to cover a black movement.”
Her first big story was Charlayne Hunter’s integration of the University of Georgia in January 1961. Still young looking at 34, she impersonated a student to receive close to Hunter.
In June 1963, Johnson was in Tuscaloosa, where Wallace blocked the entrance of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium to black students. The other reporters were ushered into a huge room and secured in. She moved to the door and told the young patrolman she needed to use the “ladies room.”
She moved to the front door where Wallace and Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach were speaking, and slipped beneath a huge table set up for microphones. She was just a few feet from Wallace’s legs.
For Christmas in 1969, Johnson was asked to interview the wives of Navy men missing in action or held captive in North Vietnam. From late 1970 to ancient 1971, she covered the hearings and courts-martial coming from the March 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai, and developed a rapport with Calley, the officer charged with the slaughter.
Before the verdict, she persuaded Calley to give her two interviews: One for an acquittal, another for a certainty.
She abandoned the AP in 1979 to take an associate editor’s position at U.S. News & World Report. In 1988, she joined CNN, working there full time until 1999.
Associated Press writer Bernard McGhee in Atlanta contributed to this report.