It was raining hard in Atlanta on the night King was assassinated. At the King home, I made a dash in the rain for the modest redbrick home with its barred windows. I recognized a New York Times reporter talking to a policeman, who told us no reporters were allowed in the house.
The door opened to let someone out. Down the long hall, I could see Coretta. Spotting me, she told the officer,
"Let Kathryn in."
The ’60s were powerful days. To say I was unprepared for plunging into chaotic events is an understatement.
I’d barely begun as a full-fledged Associated Press reporter when the civil rights struggle spread rapidly across the South.
I knew the Atlanta bureau wanted no women on its staff. Sit-ins, protest marches and Freedom Rides came my way, I felt, because I was green, cheap labor and the men with experience didn’t want to cover them. At least not until Martin Luther King became famous.
“Whenever anything was happening, Kathryn seemed to be there.
She has been trapped in a phone booth by several Ku Klux Klansmen when a Freedom Bus was arriving and forced to sit in a hot courtroom gallery while covering the trial for the random killing of a black Army Reserve officer. Such thorough, accurate, courageous and firsthand reporting is sometimes slow, and by the standards of today’s social media generation, may seem old-fashioned. But of such stuff is a great reporter made.”
Kathryn Johnson discusses her coverage of the Civil Rights Movement, from hiding under a table at Gov. Wallace's stand against integration at the University of Alablama to walking with protesters from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
That June day in 1963 when Gov. George Wallace made his defiant doorway stand at the University of Alabama, I crouched on my knees under a table laden with microphones hiding from state troopers.
In the South, in a profession predominantly male at the time, being a woman, and small, helped make me practically invisible to authority figures. The fiery segregationist governor stood blocking the attempt by U.S. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to enroll two black students. Crouched under the table, I could see the trouser legs of Wallace and Katzenbach only a few feet away. Pulling out my notebook and pen, I began scribbling down their conversation.
On a January morning in 1961, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes arrived at the University of Georgia, about to sweep aside nearly two centuries of segregation.
I figured reporters would be barred from Charlayne’s first class, so I thought of trying to pass myself off as a student. I took clothes that would blend in—bobby socks and saddle oxfords. Except for the crowd, it seemed just another day at the university. Until that night.
A crowd arrived on the campus near Charlayne’s dorm to protest integration. Then the students began heaving bricks and Coke bottles toward Charlayne’s window, breaking the glass. At the same time, a tear gas canister grazed my face and dropped at my feet. The fumes quickly dried my throat, causing tears to stream down my face.
On a cold winter night in 1964, I was trudging alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he led a straggly group of striking marchers at Scripto, a pen-manufacturing plant near Atlanta.
King, ending the freezing march, told me, “This is a dangerous section of town. Let me escort you to your car.” I offered to drive him home. As I let King out, his wife, Coretta, said, “Come on in and have some hot coffee.”
I joined the couple at their dining room table, sipping coffee and talking about what had become known as the Movement. Sitting at their table, I was struck by his simple brilliance as a leader. After that night—although King was known for never calling reporters by their first names—he always called me Kathryn.
When I was sent to Montgomery to meet an integrated bus, our AP correspondent there, Rex Thomas, warned, “Be careful!”
After watching the Greyhound bus arrive, I began phoning my Atlanta office from an outside phone booth when several angry white men spotted me dictating. They ran over, grabbed the phone booth, yanked it off its moorings and rattled it, with me inside.
AP photographer Horace Cort, spotting my plight from his car, threw open his car door and yelled, “Katy! Get in!” The men, startled, quit shaking the booth for a moment, giving me a chance to get off the floor, grab my briefcase, and scramble out and into the car, and off we sped.
On a sultry day in August 1964, a murder case was about to be tried in the Danielsville, Georgia. The victim, Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn, a U.S. Army Reserve officer, was black. The two men on trial were members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Penn had been heading home with two black officers. A car suddenly pulled next to his and slowed. Shots were fired. Half of Penn’s face was blown off.On the day the trial began, I was directed upstairs to the balcony. Looking around the balcony traditionally reserved for blacks, I noticed I was the sole white person. Discrimination, as I was discovering, was also aimed at female reporters. For three weeks, I had to cover the trial over the railing of the tiny, stifling-hot balcony.
On the last day of the trial, the jury began deliberating. I took my lone seat in the balcony. I did not wonder why any of the blacks who had been sitting with me hadn’t returned. They did not expect justice.
When black college students in Atlanta attempted to integrate the downtown Krystal, one in a chain of small fast-food restaurants, I stood in the back, watching.
They ordered burgers and Cokes, but instead of delivering their order, white grill men dumped bowls of hot grits on their heads. Watching the grits drip slowly down onto the shoulders of the young men, who sat enduring the indignity in silent protest, aroused my indignation and sense of justice.
While driving to Selma on the first day of the march, I passed huge segregationist billboards. I arrived just as a straggly group was beginning. A few barefoot white girls ran alongside the marchers, shouting encouragement while a lone helicopter hovered overhead.
As the days wore on, blacks, barefoot and in tattered clothes, came in from shacks and cotton fields to be part of the march. Celebrities, students, priests, nuns, rabbis and ministers of all faiths flew into Alabama to join.
The crowds mushroomed to an estimated 25,000 when King spoke from the marble steps of the Capitol. King told the jubilant marchers, “I know some of you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?’... How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever…”
By the time services began, tens of thousands of people lined Auburn Avenue, determined to pay final respects. Coretta had asked that King’s recorded voice be piped outside as it was being played in the church:
“Every now and then, I think about my own death... I don’t want a long funeral. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. If you want to, say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice….”
Listening again to the sermon, made me appreciative that AP had preserved this moment so that the world could hear that thundering call for equality at this very moment.
By Kathryn Johnson
A Reporter’s Recollections of Martin, Coretta and the Civil Rights Movement