Nieman News

Kathryn Johnson, a trailblazing civil rights reporter for The Associated Press and a 1977 Nieman Fellow, died in Atlanta on October 23. She was 93.

Associated Press journalist Kathryn Johnson sits at her desk in Atlanta in 1964

Associated Press journalist Kathryn Johnson sits at her desk in Atlanta in 1964

Johnson was the only journalist allowed into Martin Luther King Jr.’s home the day he was assassinated in 1968, invited in personally by Coretta Scott King. Johnson had covered King, even when he was a little-known Baptist preacher, and Coretta for many years and earned their trust. Her book “My Time With the Kings: A Reporter’s Recollection of Martin, Coretta and the Civil Rights Movement,” was published in 2016.

Born in Columbus, Georgia, Johnson graduated from the private women’s school Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia in 1947. She joined the AP soon after graduation, first as a secretary. A dozen years later, after the American Newspaper Guild interceded, she became a reporter covering the civil rights beat. She covered stories such as the integration of the University of Georgia in 1961 and, in 1963, she was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama when Governor George Wallace had a confrontation with federal officials when he blocked black students from entering the University of Alabama. During that incident, she and other reporters were locked into a large room, but Johnson—telling the patrolman guarding them she had to use the restroom—snuck out and hid under a table to hear a conversation between Wallace and Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.

Johnson also reported on the Vietnam War for the AP, including memorable interviews with wives of Navy men who were missing in action or held captive, and, in 1970 and 1971, she covered the hearings and courts-martial of the My Lai massacre. She persuaded William Calley, the Army officer charged with the slaughter of 22 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in the village, to give her two interviews before the verdict—one conviction and one acquittal.

Johnson left the AP in 1979 to join U.S. News & World Report as an associate editor and, in 1988, joined CNN before retiring in 1999.