Pioneer black journalist dies

Douglas Martin

Douglas Martin

NEW YORK - Thomas A Johnson, the first black reporter at Newsday and later at The New York Times, one of the first black journalists to work as a foreign correspondent for a major daily newspaper, died on June 3 in Queens. He was 79.

His daughter Sondi Johnson announced the death, saying no specific cause had been determined.

Black reporters and editors were rarities in newsrooms of large American newspapers in the years in which Johnson's career gained prominence.

From the civil rights protests and urban unrest of the 1960s through the rise of the black power movement and beyond, Johnson often found himself as both a reporter and an interpreter of racial conflict and change.

Johnson was a founding member of Black Perspective, an early organisation of black reporters in New York, and a founder of Black Enterprise magazine.

The journalism course he taught at New York University from 1969 to 1972, Race and the News Media, was widely imitated.

Arthur Gelb, a former managing editor for The New York Times, wrote in his memoir, City Room (2003), that when Johnson joined the paper in 1966 he was the only black reporter at The Times.

Johnson covered racial unrest and violence in the Watts section of Los Angeles, seven months after the riots there, notably beginning one article with a dramatic quotation from the owner of a shoeshine parlour: "These kids hate white people - they hate them very strongly".

Johnson won several awards for his coverage of black servicemen in Vietnam and Europe.

Johnson was frequently called on to find the views of black people on important issues, including the investigation of a prominent black member of Congress, Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jnr, by a House committee in 1967.

The next year he began an early article on a nascent black power organisation with a question: "Who are the Black Panthers and what do they want?"

While working at The Times Johnson was based in Lagos, Nigeria, from 1972 to 1975, and earlier held temporary postings in Vietnam, Europe and the Caribbean.

Thomas Aldrige Johnson was born in St Augustine on October 11 1928 and moved to New York as a boy.

He served for three years in the army in Japan during the Korean War and graduated from Long Island University with a degree in journalism in 1954.

In addition to his daughter Sondi, Johnson is survived by his wife Josephine; a son, Thomas Jnr; a daughter, Jo Holley and three grandchildren. - New York Times