Mal Johnson

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Mal Johnson, a key figure in the birth of the National Association of Black Journalists and the first female reporter at Cox Radio and Television News, died on Saturday at a hospital in Fairfax County, Va., after suffering from diabetes, her sister, Norma Simpson, said. Simpson said she was 85.

“There is a large question of whether there would even be an NABJ were it not for Mal,” her good friend and co-founder of the 32-year-old association, Paul Brock, told Journal-isms on Tuesday.

People: including the organization’s presidents: had all kinds of ways they wanted to spend NABJ’s money, Brock recalled, but “Mal wouldn’t give it up,” he said, speaking of NABJ’s meager treasury, then so small its contents could be carried around by hand. “Everybody hated her.”

Johnson was treasurer of the association for eight years, “a curmudgeon who guarded NABJ’s meager funds like a hen, often to the point of insulting members who became upset if their registration payment was misplaced or membership was not recorded,” Wayne Dawkins wrote in his 1997 book, Black Journalists: The NABJ Story.

Sarah-Ann Shaw called Mal ‘tart-tongued,’ but for good reasons,” Dawkins wrote.

“‘As treasurer she felt personally responsible,’ explained Shaw. ‘She wouldn’t let anyone handle the money. She felt her integrity was at stake.’

“Mal Johnson made no apologies. She said that ‘everyone in the organization was on an ego trip.

“‘None of them wanted to participate as leaders and do the work.

“‘I had most of the burden of the organization.

“‘I didn’t care about being appreciated. I did care about their dedication. Some of them only wanted to chase the girls.’”

A short biography for the National Council of Women’s Organizations, where Johnson was chair of the Global Women’s Task Force, reads:

“Ms. Johnson is a founding member of Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, and was a television reporter at the former WKBS in Philadelphia. Ms. Johnson became the first female reporter employed at Cox Radio and Television News, where she worked for 27 years. As their first female White House correspondent, Ms. Johnson covered five presidents, as well as Capitol Hill, the State Department, and various Federal agencies. In 1980, Ms. Johnson was promoted to Senior Washington Correspondent and assigned additional duties as National Director of Community Affairs. Ms. Johnson consults and serves on many boards, including the International Association of Women in Radio & Television, and is a world traveler. She is a Founder of the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Broadcast Association for Community Affairs. She was inducted in the Journalists Hall of Fame in 2000. A TV documentary of her life is in the Archives of the History Makers of America.”

The former Mal Hooser told Dawkins she entered journalism after teaching and living with her husband, Frank B. Johnson, a career Air Force officer, overseas. After he died, “I was running the civil rights movement for the North City Congress (Broad Street and Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia), an umbrella organization for 450 nonprofit organizations.

“In 1965 I got a call from Channel 48 . . .

“‘I didn’t know the station. They wanted someone to run the public/community affairs department.

“‘The person who interviewed me (John Gilmore) didn’t realize I was a black person until I got there. You could see he was startled. But I wasn’t going to let him off the hook. The person who called me was his boss.

“‘After about an hour he said he’d get back to me. I wasn’t home 30 minutes before my phone was ringing and Gilmore was begging me to take the job. he said his job was at stake. We later became friends.

“. . . Johnson worked at [WKBS-TV] until March 1969.

“At that time I was giving a speech to women broadcasters in Houston. I was giving them a hard time because they turned down a $150,000 grant from HEW (U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare) to train minority women for broadcasting jobs.

“‘Their reason was, if we train them, they’ll take our jobs.

“‘The president and CEO of Cox Broadcasting, J. Leonard Reinsch, was the next speaker. I didn’t know.

“‘In order to shut me up, the group named me to the board of American Women in Television and Broadcasting.

“‘At the next meeting, Reinsch was the only male there. He hired me.

“‘He became my guiding mentor. I went to Cox as a Capitol Hill correspondent.

“‘A few months later, I became White House correspondent. I worked for 21 years (1969-90) in radio and television, broadcasting to 22 stations.”

“‘Reinsch was the man who brought us the (FDR) fireside chats. He taught Eleanor Roosevelt how to speak (on the air) and taught Truman to speak.’ Reinsch died in 1991.”

Simpson said her sister wanted a private funeral with only family members, and she is honoring her wishes. The service is planned for Philadelphia next week.

Brock quoted Johnson’s last words, spoken to Simpson, of Philadelphia, who survives along with Simpson’s four sons:

“If anyone cries or starts to feel sorry for me, I’ll come back and kick their ass.”

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