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Journalist and author Haynes Johnson dies at 81

Saturday - 5/25/2013, 11:24am  ET

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) WASHINGTON TIMES OUT; NEW YORK TIMES OUT;THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER AND USA TODAY OUT; MAGS OUT; NO SALES

BARRY SCHWEID
Associated Press

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.

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