Atlanta journalist reflects on life, work and reporting during the civil rights era

There are many moments that stand out in a life, particularly when years of that life are devoted to documenting social change.

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Photo provided by the Associated Press.

For Kathryn Johnson, a reporter covering the civil rights movement of the 1960s at the Associated Press (AP), that standout moment came in February, 1968 when she got a call from Martin Luther King  Jr.’s press secretary.

King would be giving an important talk on Sunday at Ebenezer Baptist Church and they wanted the AP to be there.

It was a rare invitation to cover King, but it was also the first weekend Johnson had planned to take off in many weeks. She asked her boss to send someone else. He said no. And so, as she often did then, she went on her own time and her own dime.

That Sunday, King offered up his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, the last sermon before his death in which he prophetically spoke of being remembered as a lover of mankind at his funeral.

Johnson recorded the sermon, wrote up her story and sent it out over the AP wires. Two months later, at King’s funeral, his wife, Coretta, elected to play that sermon. The recording could be heard all the way from Ebenezer Baptist Church to Peachtree Street.

“I was listening and I felt that all that I had done with such energy and passion had made a difference,” said Johnson. “I had never felt that before.”

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Johnson began reporting for the AP in 1959, one of few women employed at the news service and the only female reporter at the time in the Atlanta bureau. Though she retired long ago, she remains passionate about journalism and social issues.

Johnson documents highlights of her career in “My Time with the Kings,” (Rosetta Books, $12).  Released earlier this year, the book features chapters from the memoir Johnson has been working on, but hasn’t managed to whittle down into a manageable size. It also includes previously unpublished photos and several of her original AP wire transmissions from 1964 through 1973.

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Photo provided by the Associated Press.

Recent back surgery has slowed Johnson down, but the memories come quickly when Johnson speaks of the past. As she recalls stories of hard-won success as a journalist and a woman, it is more with a sense of nostalgia than a view of herself as a trailblazer.

The daughter of a Greek immigrant father, Johnson was born in Columbus and spent her childhood roughhousing with her brothers, floating down the Chattahoochee and shooting tin cans. After graduating from Agnes Scott College with a degree in English, Johnson walked into the AP office in 1947 and announced she wanted to be a writer. They gave her a job as a secretary.

Johnson studied journalism at Georgia State and wrote features for the AP that sometimes made it onto the wires but more often did not. It was clear, she said, they weren’t interested in hiring women as reporters.

She kept at it and caught a break when the civil rights movement erupted. Other AP reporters — white men — didn’t want to cover black issues, she said. As the movement grew into national unrest, that attitude would change, but by then Johnson (as well as a growing crop of African-American reporters) had gained access to the movement’s leaders.

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Photo provided by the Associated Press.

Johnson’s relationship with the King family took root in the early days. In 1964, Johnson was covering an employee strike at the Scripto plant near downtown Atlanta. When the march ended, King offered to walk her to her car. She offered him a ride home.

Coretta King invited her in for coffee and Johnson sat talking with the couple at their dining room table. “He talked about the longings of his people and their hopes and dreams and their cry for human dignity,” said Johnson. “It was awesome. I wish I’d had something to record it with for future generations.”

Johnson didn’t leave until after 1 a.m. and when she did, she was changed. From that point forward, King called her Kathryn. And when he died, she was the only reporter allowed in the family home during the five days from his death to his burial.

At times, being a woman worked in Johnson’s favor such as when she dressed up like a co-ed and slipped into class alongside Charlayne Hunter Gault, one of the first African-American students to enroll at the University of Georgia in 1961.

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Photo provided by the Associated Press.

But more often, Johnson found herself on the receiving end of slights like the time she had the chance to fly to Memphis with King’s coterie to view his body after he had been killed. Her office wouldn’t allow it.

“It was the biggest story of the time. Had I been a male, there is no question they would have let him get on,” said Johnson. “That happened time and again. [Being a woman] was a great handicap in that sense.”

Johnson never had much of a mentor, though some reporters would help her out. “Mostly the older men didn’t resent me too much, they were helpful a lot of times. It was the younger men who wanted the hot stories,” she said.

The work of reporting social change came with great personal sacrifice. Years earlier, Johnson had been engaged to a soldier who was killed at war. She had the same dreams as her contemporaries, but 60 hour work weeks that blur days into nights don’t always play nice with families and children. Johnson threw herself into her career and it paid off in the form of awards and accolades, if not in dollars.

It took 12 years for Johnson to get a raise —  $30 for beating another news service on a story by 30 seconds, she said. A similar raise would follow, though Johnson now admits she didn’t care much about the money.

She was more driven by enthusiasm and is pleased knowing that all the energy she put into her work made a difference to the movement. “That was a good thing. I never thought about. If I think too hard, I might be very sorry about it,” she quips.

The 1960s were powerful days — a time that demanded a level of commitment and dedication from anyone who was deeply engaged. In some ways, said Johnson, it is analogous to what is happening in the world today.  Unfortunately, it seems we have learned very little from the past.

“There are all kinds of horrors today that are worse than what was happening then,” said Johnson. “In time, it will be put into proper perspective.”

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