WASHINGTON – Haynes Johnson, a pioneering Washington journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the civil rights movement and migrated from newspapers to television, books and teaching, died Friday. He was 81.
The Washington Post reported he died at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md. In a statement to the Post newsroom, Managing Editor Kevin Merida said Johnson died of a heart attack.
Johnson was awarded a Pulitzer in 1966 for national reporting on the civil rights struggle in Selma, Ala., while with the Washington Evening Star. He spent about 12 years at the Star before joining its chief rival, The Washington Post, in 1969. Johnson was a columnist for the Post from 1977 to 1994.
Dan Balz, the Post’s senior political reporter, said Johnson was already a legend before they worked together at the newspaper.
“I don’t say this lightly. He was a great journalist,” Balz 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.”
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.
“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 had attended graduation ceremonies on Monday for the journalism college.
Kathryn Oberly, Johnson’s wife, told the school’s Capital News Service that Johnson entered the hospital earlier this week for heart tests and died Friday morning of a heart attack.
Johnson also had teaching stints at George Washington University, Princeton University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Pennsylvania.
He 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 received a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on civil rights in Selma, Ala., where hundreds of marchers bound for the state capital of Montgomery were brutally beaten in March 1965 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.
“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.”
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 redefine Washington reporting, getting outside the Beltway to talk with voters about candidates and issues, rather than letting politicians dictate coverage. Both then wove that reporting into broader articles that examined the mood of the country and the workings of government.
“Hayes was a giant,” journalism professor and author Carl Sessions Stepp commented on the University of Maryland’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. In recent years, he said, Johnson had been focused on having his father’s “Waterfront” articles printed in book form.
He had also just begun work on a 19th book, looking at the speed with which breaking news was covered in the social media era, according to Capital News Service.
Johnson married Julia Ann Erwin in 1954; they had three daughters and two sons and later divorced. In 2002, Johnson married Kathryn Oberly, an associate judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.