Richard Prince's Journal-isms™

Pioneer Thomas A. Johnson Dies

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Monday, June 2, 2008

Tom Johnson, center with glasses and camera, and members of the 173rd Airbone unit. Johnson was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his series on the black soldier and the war in Vietnam.

N.Y. Times Reporter Covered Vietnam, Civil Rights

Thomas A. Johnson, a Vietnam War correspondent and pioneer black journalist who for a time in the 1960s was the only identifiable black reporter at the New York Times, died Monday in New York. He was 79 and had Alzheimer's disease and glaucoma.

As Earl Caldwell wrote elsewhere on the Maynard Institute Web site, "In the black journalist movement, Thomas A. Johnson holds an important piece of history — he was the first black reporter on a major daily to serve as a foreign correspondent.

"As a reporter on the staff of the New York Times, he broke that barrier in 1966. He worked in Africa, Asia (Vietnam), Europe and the Caribbean. He won numerous awards and a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his series on the black solider and the war in Vietnam. . . . Tom Johnson was a founding member of Black Perspective, the first organization of black reporters which was formed in New York City in 1967." He was also a member of the founding board of advisers of Black Enterprise magazine.

"Indeed, we were lucky to have attracted Johnson to the paper," former Times managing editor Arthur Gelb wrote in his 2003 memoir, "City Room." "He brought with him his experience covering protests in Washington, Selma, Harlem and Watts. He had studied journalism at Long Island University on the G.I. Bill, but, for several years after graduation, he had trouble finding work as a reporter. He became a social investigator for the city's Welfare Department and, with the rise of the civil rights movement and the scarcity of black reporters to cover it, had finally been hired by Newsday in 1963, where he quickly established a reputation as unflappable on difficult assignments. . . The thirty-eight-year-old Johnson, who had joined our staff in February 1966, was at that time our only black reporter."

Gelb went on to describe how Johnson and another well-known journalist who rose to prominence in the era, Richard Reeves, discovered through their reporting that a 17-year-old black youth had been falsely accused of shooting an 11-year-old, also black.

"We're blessed by freedom of the press," the lawyer for the accused teen-ager said. "It wasn't until the New York Times sent reporters onto the streets and byways of East New York that the truth came out in this case."

Johnson told some of his own story in "Missing Pages: Black Journalists of Modern America: An Oral History," by the late Wallace Terry, completed last year by Terry's wife, Janice Terry.

A native of St. Augustine, Fla., Johnson and his family moved to New York when he was 11. His mother was a seamstress and his father an undertaker.

After his Army service, where Johnson spent three years in Japan during the Korean conflict, he went to Long Island University, graduating in 1955, and performed a variety of jobs when he could not find one in journalism. Among them was writing a column for the New York edition of the Pittsburgh Courier, the well-known black newspaper. Noted black journalist Louis Lomax suggested that Johnson apply to Newsday, the Long Island paper, which in 1962, Lomax said, was "looking for one" — that is, a black journalist.

When Johnson went to the editor's office, he wrote, "I found a short muscular man sitting with his feet on the desk and a Confederate flag on the wall behind him.

"He said, 'Tom, we talk about integration around here, but we ain't got a single nigra in this place. We've been reading your stuff, and we want to talk to you about coming over here." Johnson said he "had to listen carefully when he said, 'nigra,' because I wasn't sure what he was really saying. But we became good friends."

It wasn't long before Johnson was covering race relations, including the historic disappearance of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. Johnson was the only black journalist on a trip to look into the situation. Once there, he decided to follow a delegation of members of the New York branch of the NAACP who were looking for information, rather than joining the other reporters.

"I learned that the journalists in the lobby, maybe the photographers and cameramen, were assaulted and beaten by some of the white crowd.

"David Halberstam later said to me, 'You are a journalist, aren't you? You should have been downstairs with us.'

"I said, 'F--- you.'

"I was in enough danger as it was."

At the Times, Johnson covered race relations among the troops in Vietnam, and accepted a job as assistant city editor when he returned. But he found "there was no creativity, certainly none of the creativity that goes into being a reporter or a foreign correspondent."

On a trip to show his children black Mississippi, Johnson wrote that he began to think about the years he covered Africa, based in Lagos, Nigeria. "I asked one of my servants what he would do if I gave him a hundred dollars. He said, 'I'll buy a piece of cloth and cut it into four pieces and sell it. Then I'll buy more cloth and sell it."

"A journalist found it difficult to move into the commercial area, because as a journalist you were accepted immediately by all kinds of people and taken as an authority on one subject or another. I found it hard to even think of getting away from that. But I realized that Africa had changed my life in terms of what I wanted to do with it.

"So I left the Times and set up a private business as an international trade specialist." Thomas A. Johnson & Associates, a New York-based public relations firm, was founded in 1981.

He had been living in the New York State Veterans' Home in St. Albans, Queens, N.Y., where he died. Survivors includee his wife, the former Josephine Holley; daughters Sondi Johnson of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Jo Holley Johnson, of Queens, N.Y.; a son, Thomas Jr., of Oakland, Calif.; and three grandchildren. Another son, Craig Johnson, is deceased.

Added June 4: Funeral services are scheduled for Monday at the J. Foster Phillips funeral home, 179-24 Linden Blvd., Queens, N.Y. Viewing is from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., followed by the service at 11.

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Sun-Times Reporter a No-Show at R. Kelly Trial

"There will be no jail time for Jim DeRogatis, but the R. Kelly trial judge ordered the Sun-Times music critic to come to court Wednesday," the Chicago Tribune reported.

"A subpoena had been issued compelling him to appear Tuesday, but DeRogatis never showed.

"The newspaper argued the renowned music critic never received the subpoena, though a Sun-Times reporter, attorney and the editor-in-chief's assistant all received legal documents indicating he was expected in court, according to statements made before Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan.

"Gaughan said it was possible DeRogatis was unaware of the ordered appearance and would not issue a warrant for his arrest."

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Feedback: In Africa, Tom Johnson Helped a Rookie

In 1972, on my first trip to Africa, I introduced myself to Tom Johnson on a flight between Lagos and Nairobi. I was a budding journalist and knew who he was because he was one of the few black journalists working for the New York Times. He was on his way to Addis Ababa and invited me to contact him there.

He met me at the airport and on the way into the city he told me that drivers in the Ethiopian capital attempt to prove a new law of physics: two pieces of mass CAN occupy the same space at the same time. He was very gracious with his time, introducing me to various people, showing me around the city and schooling me in the ways of a foreign correspondent based in Africa (I became one years later.) He was a pioneer.

Joe Davidson
The Washington Post
June 3, 2008

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Feedback: True Pioneer, Great Journalist, Good Man

Tom Johnson was the senior black journalist at the New York Times when I joined its Editorial Board in 1974. He immediately became a warm and generous friend. Tom was a true pioneer, a great journalist and a good man.

Roger Wilkins
George Mason University
Fairfax, Va.
June 3, 2008

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Feedback: Tom Johnson Was the Gold Standard

Thomas A. Johnson was a mentor, a friend, a role model, and a figurative big brother when I was breaking into journalism during the late 1960s.

He was a deceptively relentless reporter, who masked his determination to get to the very roots of every story with a ready smile and an easy laugh. He was a direct and powerful writer. He was incredibly brave, whether in Mississippi during the most dangerous days of the civil rights movement or in the war zone of Vietnam.

Generations of younger black journalists may not even know who Tom Johnson was, but they owe him an enormous debt. He was the gold standard. He made it easier for all who follow in his enormous footsteps.

Jack White
Richmond, Va.
June 3, 2008

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Feedback: Class Act, Remarkable Journalist

Tom Johnson was really something special. I first met him when I was sent to cover the Pan African conference in Atlanta in 1970 (I think). It was my first story for the national desk at the Washington Post and when I got there, I was overwhelmed. Tom took me under his wing and made sure I talked with the right people. He was a class act and a remarkable journalist.

Ivan Brandon
Rockville, Md.
June 3, 2008

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Feedback: It Was Like Watching a Master

It's pretty fair to say I had no clue about journalism or Tom Johnson when he called me out of the blue to offer me a job in 1980. I was working in public relations for a Puerto Rican non-profit in New York writing press releases for an egomaniacal executive director who thought his every utterance was newsworthy. My immediate boss was a nice Anglo lady who no doubt felt a bit uneasy that her No. 2 (me) was a Yale-educated Puerto Rican.

Tom had dealt with my boss for a Times story. When he left the paper to start the Harlem Third World Trade Institute, he called her to see if she knew any talented young Latinos he could hire to do public relations.

Voila! I got a better paying job, and my old boss got job security.

So began two years of working with Tom as he embarked on new phase of his life in Third World trade. We had few resources and more than a few people who wondered what we were doing working for a quasi-governmental agency that was supposed to help spur minority business. Being a newspaperman, Tom insisted the group publish a paper, and he hired me to be its editor.

Talk about faith. I had no clue what I was doing, staying up long nights learning editing, writing and old-school cut-and-paste layout. We worked with the folks who published Big Red — the numbers sheet and dream book folks — to do our graphics and printing. It was crazy, but I learned. (I also learned that the Big Red numbers were chosen by a human random-number generator who ran on beer and herb).

What I remember most about Tom was that voice— rich, deep, mesmerizing. I would watch him use it during interviews, switching on the charm or letting you in on a joke like it was the most wonderful secret around. I saw how he got folks to just relax around him using the force of personality. It was like watching a master.

When he left to start his own public relations company, I knew I had to leave too. He had encouraged me to get into journalism, and he wrote one of my recommendation letters for Columbia. He was an inspiration and a font of advice in those early years.

For all his accomplishments, Tom never bragged about them. And despite my utter rookie cluelessness about journalism, he always encouraged me and never talked down to me.

Tom loved journalism, but harbored no sentimentality, either, as a man of color. His counsel helped me confront this business with a clear head. A very clear head. And for that, I thank him.

David Gonzalez
New York Times
New York
June 3, 2008

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Feedback: Don't Think You Got There on Your Own

I met Tom Johnson in the 1960s when he was the only black reporter for the New York Times and I was the only black reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

Still. he was the veteran and I was the rookie. Tom was friendly, encouraging and had a great sense of humor. We all needed a sense of humor back then and I was proud to consider him my friend over the years. He also projected a quiet dignity and competence that set an example for all reporters.

Not long after meeting Tom, I met Paul Delaney, another black reporter who had joined the Times and an exceptional talent and human being. Thankfully, Paul is still going strong.

Every young reporter of color should know about the Tom Johnsons and Paul Delaneys of our business and how their commitment to their profession, dignity, courage and exceptional abilities paved the way for thousands to come. Don't think for one second you got where you are solely on your own.

Joe Boyce
June 3, 2008

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Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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