May 24, 2013

Pulitzer-winning reporter Haynes Johnson dies at 81

He covered the civil rights struggle in the South and became a 'profiler of the country' as a columnist.

The Associated Press

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This undated photo shows journalist Haynes Johnson. Johnson, a pioneering Washington journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the civil rights movements and migrated from newspapers to television, books and teaching, died Friday, May 24, 2013. He was 81. (AP Photo/The Washington Post)

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.


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