WASHINGTON (AP) – When Haynes Johnson visited Selma, Ala., months after a civil rights crisis there gripped the nation, he wrote in The Washington Evening Star that he’d found “no discernible change in the racial climate of the city.” When it came to employment, housing or education, blacks had made no real gains.
But he noticed something else as he traveled the South and talked to people.
As a result of what Selma’s blacks and their white supporters had done, he wrote, “The Deep South will never be the same.” He wrote that the demonstrations and march to Montgomery had lifted the spirits of blacks “everywhere.”
Johnson’s shoe-leather reporting and keen insights on the struggle of Southern blacks during the civil rights era won him the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1966, one of many honors showered upon him during a brilliant career that spanned more than 50 years.
Johnson, a pioneering Washington journalist and author who helped redefine political reporting in addition to appearing on PBS and teaching journalism at the University of Maryland, died Friday at a Washington-area hospital after suffering a heart attack. He was 81, and had just attended the journalism school’s graduation days earlier.
“I don’t say this lightly. He was a great journalist,” Dan Balz, the senior political reporter for The Washington Post, said Friday. “He had everything a good reporter should have, which was a love of going to find the story, a commitment to thorough reporting and then kind of an understanding of history and the importance of giving every story kind of the broadest possible sweep and context.”
His students and colleagues, meanwhile, were mourning the loss of a beloved figure known for his passion, humor and ability to connect.
“Hundreds of our students learned how to cover public affairs from one of the best journalists America has ever known,” Merrill College of Journalism Dean Lucy Dalglish said in a written statement released by the university. “It was equally obvious to anyone who looked through the window that Haynes was in his element in the classroom. His entire face lit up when he was in the middle of a classroom discussion.”
Johnson entered Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md., earlier in the week for tests on his heart and died Friday morning of a heart attack, said his wife, Kathryn A. Oberly, according to an article posted on the Merrill College’s website.
Washington Post Managing Editor Kevin Merida relayed the news in a memo to the newsroom.
Johnson spent about 12 years at The Evening Star before moving to its rival newspaper, The Post, in 1969. Johnson was a columnist for the Post from 1977 to 1994.
Former Post executive editor Leonard Downie told the newspaper, “Haynes was a pioneer in looking at the mood of the country to understand a political race. Haynes was going around the country talking to people, doing portraits and finding out what was on people’s minds. He was a kind of profiler of the country.”
The author, co-author or editor of 18 books, Johnson also appeared regularly on the PBS programs “Washington Week in Review” and “The NewsHour.” He was a member of the “NewsHour” historians panel from 1994 to 2004.
“I knew I wanted to write about America, our times, both in journalism and I also wanted to do books,” he told C-SPAN in 1991. “I wanted to try to see if I could combine what I do as a newspaper person as well as step back a little bit and write about American life, and I was lucky enough to be able to do that.”
Johnson had taught at the University of Maryland since 1998.
He also had teaching stints at George Washington University, Princeton University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Haynes Bonner Johnson was born in New York City on July 9, 1931. His mother, Emmie, was a pianist and his father, Malcolm Johnson, a newspaperman. The elder Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize for the New York Sun in 1949 for his reporting on the city’s dockyards, and his series suggested the story told in the Oscar-winning film “On the Waterfront.”
Johnson studied journalism and history at the University of Missouri, graduating in 1952. After serving three years in the Army during the Korean War, he earned a master’s degree in American history from the University of Wisconsin in 1956.
Johnson resisted working in New York journalism to avoid being compared to his father. He worked for nearly a year at the Wilmington (Del.) News-Journal before joining the Star as a reporter.
He covered a wide range of stories, from earthquakes to President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration to foreign conflicts, according to the book, “National Reporting: 1941-1986.” He also wrote a series on blacks in Washington.
His reporting eventually took him to Selma, in the heat of summer, to report on the civil rights movement.
Months earlier, in March 1965, hundreds of marchers bound for the state capital of Montgomery had been brutally beaten by state and local law officers. Martin Luther King, Jr., came to the city, and after a federal judge found that the demonstrators had a right to march, they completed their journey later that month.
Johnson sought to further explore the issues that the march and demonstrations had raised.
“Haynes had roots in the South,” Balz said. “He was raised in New York, but he had Southern roots. He had a special appreciation for the civil rights struggle and what African-Americans were going through.”
Johnson and his father are the only father and son to win Pulitzer Prizes for reporting.
It wasn’t long before Ben Bradlee, the newly appointed executive editor of The Washington Post, came calling. As Bradlee was seeking to elevate the newspaper, he recruited both Johnson and The New York Times’ David S. Broder to strengthen the paper’s political reporting.
“He reached out, held out his hand, and I grabbed it, and that was it,” Johnson recalled in Jeff Himmelman’s 2012 biography of Bradlee. “There was no contract, nothing. It was just, `Come, we want you,’ and I’ve never forgotten that.”
Johnson’s books include “The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election,” (2009) with Balz; “The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years” (2001); and “The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point” (1996) with Broder, who died two years ago.
Johnson and Broder helped transform Washington reporting, getting outside the Beltway to talk with voters about candidates and issues, rather than letting politicians dictate coverage. Both wove that reporting into broader articles that examined the mood of the country and the inner workings of government.
“Hayes was a giant,” journalism professor and author Carl Sessions Stepp commented on the Merrill College’s website. “He had the mind of a scholar and the soul of a regular citizen, and nobody has ever better combined insider digging and outside-the-Beltway pulse-taking.”
Gene Roberts, who helped lead The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times and co-authored a book on media coverage of the civil rights movement, said he was amazed with Johnson’s work ethic.
“I think he was one of the most important reporters in the country during his journalistic career and later as he got more into books,” Roberts said. “I was amazed. Most writers take a breather between books, but when he finished one book he always started immediately on another book.”
Johnson and Roberts taught together at the University of Maryland. Roberts said Johnson was an inspirational teacher and a serious historian. He also successfully worked to have his father’s “Waterfront” articles printed in book form in 2005.
The university said Johnson had begun work on a 19th book, looking at the speed with which breaking news was covered in the social media era. On Thursday night, Johnson phoned his teaching assistant from the hospital to say he was bored and to ask for some reading material so he could work on the book, the university article said.
Johnson’s first marriage, to Julia Ann Erwin, ended in divorce. They had three daughters and two sons. Johnson and Oberly, an associate judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, married in 2002.
Zongker contributed from Washington.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Barry Schweid reported on foreign policy, the Supreme Court and national politics for The Associated Press in Washington for more than 50 years.
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