In 1947, Kathryn Johnson walked into The Associated Press Atlanta bureau seeking a reporting job, but was told women weren’t welcome, and so settled for a job as a secretary in the bureau, hoping for the possibility of one day becoming a journalist. 12 years later, she got her shot. She was assigned to the nascent civil rights movement because she was “young, green and cheap labor,” she said, and because the many white male journalists wanted nothing to do with covering sit-ins, marches and tense black-and-white altercations.
Johnson rose to become one of the Associated Press’s preeminent reporters on the American civil rights era. Her understanding of Southern culture and people helped her give voice to the historical transformation taking place and her tenacity and graciousness earned her unprecedented access to the major figures of the time, most notably the family of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Beginning when King returned to Atlanta after the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, Johnson followed the civil rights leader’s tumultuous career in its entirety and formed a close friendship with Coretta Scott King as well. It was because of this intimate familiarity with the King family that led Coretta to allow Johnson into the King home on the night her husband was assassinated. Read two excerpts from Kathryn Johnson’s memoir, My Time with the Kings, below.
VISITING KING’S HOME
On a fiercely cold winter night in 1964, I was trudging alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he led a group of striking marchers at Scripto, a pen and pencil–manufacturing plant near downtown Atlanta.
Bundled in a heavy coat, my teeth chattering from the cold, I asked King the usual questions: “How much pay raise are they asking? Where are negotiations at this point? Do you plan to continue striking?”
Scripto workers had walked off the job, demanding equal pay with whites for skilled and nonskilled work. King sympathized with the strikers, many of whom were members of his church.
The straggly little group hurrying along the cold, dark city street drew little media attention except from one or two local TV reporters.
By sheer luck, that assignment led to my meeting later in the privacy of the King home and to my personal introduction to his incredible gifts as an orator.
King, ending the freezing march at 11:15 p.m., told me, “This is a dangerous section of town. Let me escort you to your car.” When we reached my car several blocks away, I offered to drive him home. At that time, the Kings lived on nearby Johnson Street.
As I stopped the car to let King out, his wife, Coretta, pregnant with their last child, came to the door and said, “Come on in and have some hot coffee. You’ll warm up.” King led me to a phone in his office, and I quickly called in my strike story.
I then joined the couple at their dining room table, sipping coffee and talking about what had become known as the Movement. I’d long been impressed with King’s personal magnetism and flow of words at news conferences, but sitting at their table late that night, I was struck by his simple brilliance as a leader.
His ability to put into words the longings, the hopes and dreams of his people, their anguish and their cry for human dignity, clearly was a great gift.
After that night—although King was known for never calling reporters by their first names—he always called me Kathryn.
King was to me a young, well-educated Baptist minister who came out of the Jim Crow churches of the South preaching brotherhood and nonviolence. But it was into a land filled with violence. Blacks were being beaten, lynched and terrorized by Ku Klux Klansmen who drove into their neighborhoods wearing their long white robes and hooded masks to frighten them. King, too, had been threatened—a bomb had been thrown at his home in Montgomery, Alabama, and later in Atlanta, Klan night riders had burned a cross in his front yard.
It was 1:15 a.m. before I left the King home, and both King and Coretta stood at the door waiting until I drove off.
At home that morning, I took a breakfast tray into the den so that I could watch TV news. When the Scripto strike story came on, my mother, spotting me as the only white person in the crowd and walking alongside King, questioning him, said, “Honey, be careful. I’m afraid someday someone’s going to try to kill that man.”
‘LET KATHRYN IN’
It was raining hard in Atlanta on the night King was assassinated. I was on a date with a friend, heading to a movie, when the bulletin broke in on the car radio.
At first, neither of us spoke. Then my date asked, “Want me to drive you to the King home?” I nodded. He turned the car around and drove straight there, both of us silent, stunned and locked in our own thoughts.
At the King home, now on Sunset Street, I made a dash in the spring rain for the small porch of the modest, split-level redbrick home with its barred windows. The dark, tree-lined street was ablaze with lights. On the porch, I recognized a New York Times reporter talking to a policeman, who told us no reporters were allowed in the house.
As we stood there, the door opened to let someone out. Down the long hall, I could see Coretta, clad in a rose-pink nightgown and robe. Spotting me, she told the officer, “Let Kathryn in.”
Visitors, including King’s sister, Christine, and her husband, Isaac Farris, and many close friends, had been filling the King home. After most had left, Coretta, needing rest and privacy, went into seclusion. She gestured for her eldest daughter, Yolanda (known in the family as Yoki), and me to join her in her bedroom. The younger children had gone to bed.
Coretta, recovering from surgery she’d had weeks earlier, lay back on the pillows of her large bed, watching television. Reports were flowing in about her husband’s death, with reruns of dramatic moments in his life.
The three of us were mesmerized before the TV screen, watching King’s face and listening to the powerful and prophetic last speech he had made only the night before in Memphis, Tennessee. As his voice thundered, “I am not afraid. …Blessed is the name of the Lord,” Coretta wept softly.
On that night, rain had been falling in Memphis, too. Lightning flashes shone through the windows of the Masonic Temple, where King was speaking to a crowd of some 2,000, many of them members of the striking garbage workers’ union he had come to support.
“I just want to do God’s will,” King said, his rhythmic words punctuated by thunder crashing outside and picked up by the microphone. “And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountaintop, and I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promised land.” His words and his somber thoughts seemed to stir the crowd. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land!”
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While Coretta, Yoki and I were watching those dramatic events, the phone rang. I heard Coretta say, “Mr. President.” I assumed Lyndon Johnson was on the line to express condolences, and I left the room briefly to give her privacy.
After she hung up, Coretta called me and we went back to watching TV. She did not say anything about her phone conversation, to me or to her daughter, nor did we ask. Tight-lipped and misty-eyed, she began again listening intently to what her husband was saying, but her face was calm.
I’ve no idea what Coretta was thinking that night, though I’ve often been asked. If I had to guess, it would be about her devastating loss, about how she and her four children were going to get along, or perhaps how she could carry on her husband’s remarkable legacy. King was 39 years old.
That night, April 4, 1968, Coretta displayed the same resolute will and remarkable composure that would carry her through the kaleidoscopic events and emotions surrounding her husband’s assassination and burial.
A young photographer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), who had been told to record the happenings in the King home, came into the bedroom briefly and began snapping pictures. Twelve-year-old Yoki, in pajamas and robe and her hair in pink curlers, lay on her stomach on the floor, her face propped between her hands.
Not wanting to intrude in pictures of Coretta at such a poignant time, I left my chair and flopped down on the floor next to Yoki, stretching to one side so that I could stay out of view of the camera.
When the photographer finished, I got back in my chair. It was eerie. The famed civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner had just been shot to death and there we were, his wife, child and I, watching in awed silence as he spoke: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.”
Listening to that emotional, intellectually charged voice was stunning, realizing that never again would we hear live the sound of his voice and the power of his words. I felt a strong sense of unreality being in the King home at the end of his life, since I had been there covering many events early in his rise to fame.
I was also feeling a strong sense of privilege for being in the King family’s home during that difficult time.
On his last night, King’s thoughts seemed riveted on death. There had been threats, he told his Memphis audience. Only that morning, bomb threats had delayed his commercial airliner for a baggage search in Atlanta.
Days after his death, Coretta had said, “We always knew this could happen.” Only weeks before, King had sent her a bouquet of plastic flowers. “Why plastic?” Coretta had asked. “You’ve always sent me real flowers.”
King replied, “They’re to remember me by.”
Excerpt from “My Time with the Kings” by Kathryn Johnson © 2016 courtesy The Associated Press/Rosetta Books.
All photos courtesy of The Associated Press.