Thomas A. Johnson: N.Y. Times Reporter Covered Vietnam, Civil Rights

Richard Prince – Journalisms

© 2008 Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education
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 founder 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 had been falsely accused of shooting an 11-year-old black youth.
“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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